Thursday, September 13, 2012

An argument from evil against naturalism

Consider this valid argument:

  1. (Premise) Moral outrage at an event is misplaced when no one is responsible for the event.
  2. (Premise) Moral outrage at the suffering of animals before the advent of humankind is not misplaced.
  3. (Premise) If naturalism is true, then no one is responsible for the suffering of animals before the advent of humankind.
  4. So, naturalism is false.

I don't know if (2) is true, though. But this argument does put pressure on the naturalist running an argument from the suffering of animals against the existence of God. For that argument is persuasive in large part by creating moral outrage in the reader. But if naturalism is true, that outrage is misplaced.

What if theism is true? Is the outrage misplaced? That depends. If, say, the devil is behind that suffering, it's not misplaced.

27 comments:

Derrick said...

Two things. First, it is unclear that the moral outrage behind the argument from evil is misplaced. The outrage is, as far as I can tell, aimed at a being that is supposedly good and would allow these sorts of evils and this amount of evil to occur. It's unclear that there is anything misplaced about that. At the very least, you should say a little more about that.

Second, wouldn't any plausible version of Theism deny that as a matter of course that Satan is behind things like predation, natural disasters, and disease?

ozero91 said...

I don't think an atheist's moral outrage is directed at God. After all, why would they be angry at something that they believe does not exist? Rather, I think, the moral outrge is directed at believers. "How can YOU believe in something that allows evil to occur?"

Everett Piper said...

But how can there be anything such as "evil" without a "measuring rod outside of those things being measured?" (CS Lewis). The very existence of righteous indignation presuppose a standard or "righteousness" that is bigger and beyond human judgment, i.e. God.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Derrick:

Well, if there is a God, then any evils that he permits he has on balance good moral reason to permit (or else he wouldn't be God). But one shouldn't be morally outraged at someone doing something that he has on balance good moral reason to do.

And if there is no God, then moral outrage at God is misplaced.

Perhaps, though, one can have a kind of moral outrage at a fictional character for what the fictional character does in the story. But this is tricky for at least two reasons. The first is that I am not sure this is really moral outrage--it may be something a little different. The second is that it is a part of the story about God that he has on-balance good moral reasons for permitting these evils. So if we consider God as a character in a story, moral outrage at that character is misplaced, since in-story God is a character who has good moral reasons for permitting these evils.

So, whether God exists or not, moral outrage at God is misplaced.

ozero91:

It's quite possible to be angry at something you don't believe exists. Suppose you talk yourself into scepticism about the external world or just about other minds. I bet you will still be outraged when other people do outrageous things to you, even though you don't believe that other people exist. You will then have a conflict between your beliefs and your emotional reactions.

Mr Piper:

I don't see why there needs to be a measuring rod for things to have measurements.

March Hare said...

Premise 3 is also misplaced because animals of a certain intellect are moral actors in a very limited sense.

Plus, you have a definition of God that requires some serious backing up - a God that would only permit evil in pursuit of a greater, and better, goal. This may be a common definition, but it is not universal or necessary. Also, given some definitions of God (like the one you have), It would be responsible for the suffering of animals, through creation, direct action, or inaction hence Premise 1 would also be invalid in this universe.

Unknown said...

March Hare:

If you attack premise 3 in that manner, then the theist would be able to say that the pain/evil certain animals experienced could be justified. Indeed, one of the presumed difficulties of the problem of animal pain is that an animal's life, being absent any moral features, is not the type of life that would allow a justification for the pain/evil they experience.

Also, while I don't want to sound like a prick... it is worth noting (at least for methodological reasons) that a premise is not the sort of thing that is valid or invalid. Unless, we are at the sane time considering it in connection with a different argument that has this premise as its conclusion:)

March Hare said...

Not so anon. The use of 'naturalism' as part of premise 3 as a reason for falsifying it in the conclusion means that the author has either changed the definition of naturalism or has performed a sleight of hand and tried to slip a generalised false conclusion in on the basis of an, apparently, unfalsifiable premise.

March Hare said...

Not that I'm saying the author has done this, I'm simply saying that by making the premises unchallengeable you make the conclusion meaningless as it only holds in relation to the premises and that's not even remotely the intent of the author as far as I can tell.

ozero91 said...

Hare,

Could you clarify which animals you are talking about when you say "Premise 3 is also misplaced because animals of a certain intellect are moral actors in a very limited sense." The great apes? And what morals are they exhibiting?

And if there is equivocation taking place, could you perhaps demonstrate it? For example, what you see as the author's definition of naturalism in premise 3 versus another meaning of naturalism.

March Hare said...

ozero91, how about all those other hominids that existed around the time of the birth of our species...

I'm not saying there is equivocation taking place, I'm fairly certain there isn't, it was simply a response to anon who claimed premises were not up for being challenged. If you say that you can make anything be logically valid within your premises and the conclusion but it has no bearing on any situation or argument elsewhere.

ozero91 said...

I think it's perfectly fine to address a premise. But I'm still not sure what your objection to premise 3 is. Are you saying that: Before the genetic advent of humans, there were hominids that were moral actors... then what?

Unknown said...

I'm not sure what you are trying to say. For the time being I assume you thought I said one of the premises could not be false, namely #3 (since you thought I was saying premises cannot be false?).

That's not what I meant (nor, I think, what I wrote). I was simply pointing out that premises are sound/unsound and not valid/invalid (unless they are sub-conclusions or some such thing). This was a point about the language you were using, which was a bit murky, if not incorrect.

Also, re-defining naturalism in #3 (as you suggested) is fine. Then, Pruss's argument is not successful. But, then you provide the theist with more resources for providing a successful response to the problem of animal pain/evil! Actually, more than just resources, since you end up significantly weakening a portion of the problem. This was, of course, what I said above:)

March Hare said...

Unknown, I see what you mean now. I had incorrectly thought you meant premises were sacrosanct and only conclusions were up for debate. I should have said unsound. (Although I do think that false is simply an incredibly strong kind of unsound.)

My objection to 3 is that it seems to say moral responsibility only appears when humans come on the stage - I disagree and say that other animals are also moral actors so there is someone to blame for (at least some of) their suffering.

But if you want a more complete critique then if fails on many levels - the attempt is to falsify naturalism by taking an atheistic argument that implicitly assumes a deity as it is using the suffering of animals to disprove an omnibenevolent creator.

To correct the error you'd have to restate premise 2 as:
"Moral outrage at a god for the suffering of animals before the advent of humankind is not misplaced."

Then the conclusion effectively becomes a rather less interesting "naturalists blaming god are illogical".

It also invokes morality which is fundamentally flawed... but that's a whole other argument.

Andres Ruiz said...

Dr. Pruss,

The naturalist running the argument from evil is not himself/herself outraged by the death of animals prior to humans arriving on the scene. It isn't outrageous because, as premise one indicates, there is no one to blame.

What the naturalist is doing is using a *conditional* when running the argument from evil. *If God*, then outrage.

I need not commit myself to outrage in order to believe the conditional holds.

This seems pretty straightforward I think. The same way that running an argument from evil doesn't commit you to the existence of moral values. You may be a nihilist and nevertheless hold the conditional "If God existed, we shouldn't see this".

Alexander R Pruss said...

"The naturalist running the argument from evil is not himself/herself outraged by the death of animals prior to humans arriving on the scene."

Is that really true? I wonder. I suspect that some of the intuitive pull of the argument may often be due something like a feeling of outrage.

"You may be a nihilist and nevertheless hold the conditional 'If God existed, we shouldn't see this.'"

Certainly you can. But consider two moral intuitions:
1. The Rwanda genocide was an evil.
2. If there were moral values such as the theist describes them, then there wouldn't be anything that would justify a God in permitting the Rwanda genocide.

Moral intuition (1) is typically much stronger. It's just obvious that the Rwanda genocide was a horrendous evil, and hence an evil.

Moreover, categorical intuitions are typically more reliable than hypothetical intuitions, especially when the hypothesis is one that is distant from one's own views.

So, yes, the nihilist atheist can consistently run the argument from evil, but only at the cost of holding on to something significantly more problematic--namely, the denial of (1)--than what the theist has to hold--namely, the denial of (2).

March Hare said...

"Is that really true?"
Yes. Which is rather obvious since naturalists are not outraged by the cheetah hunting for their next meal or the new leader of the pride killing the young.

"It's just obvious that the Rwanda genocide was a horrendous evil, and hence an evil."

It really isn't. And your inability to walk a mile in the shoes of a naturalist moral nihilist, or error theorist like me, is quite striking. Your argument here sounds like you believe anyone without a grounding in orals is a naive moral relativist and has no basis for being against genocide. I hope this is not the case...

Alexander R Pruss said...

March Hare:

I'll take your word for the lack of outrage.

As for horrendous evils, it may be that to a nihilist or error theorist it no longer is obvious that the Rwanda genocide is a horrendous evil. Human beings have an incredible capacity for talking themselves out of obvious truths. I expect you and I agree on this point, though we disagree on what the obvious truths we talk ourselves out of are. :-)

March Hare said...

Alex, we just disagree on the correct usage of 'evil'.

We would be equal in our outrage at the situation and our empathy for the victims (perhaps a non-theist more so than a theist?)

However, I wouldn't declare by fiat that it was evil (because it just feels like it is), I'd give reasons why it is not a desirable state of affairs. Now, in short hand, one may use the term 'evil' since most people you're talking to share enough values to share 'moral' outrage at the genocide.

But, try talking to a perpetrator (who, I assume, has reasons for doing what they're doing that are more pragmatic than 'evil') and calling it evil gets you nowhere. I, on the other hand, can describe the outcomes and why I'm strongly against them and may be able to have a conversation and begin persuading them to stop.

Now that is a rather extreme situation so my hypothetical may not work there, but in a more civil situation there is a possibility for reasonable dialogue and agreement. For example, if I were to talk to a lot of pro-life people I may find common ground with those who are against abortion but don't hold to the extreme position than all contraception is morally repugnant or the equivalent of abortion. Or with pro-choice people I may find many who are able to be convinced that a viable child is worth trying to save in spite of the mother's wishes.

My point is that since morality is a mish-mash of values, preferences and feelings within a person there is no objective evil that two people can accurately talk about.

As an example, two people looking at a middle of the road Ford may call it a 'bad' car. But one may be a speed freak and dislike the ford for it's lack of speed. The other an environmentalist who hates to standard, non-hybrid engine.

We need to know what someone means by evil before we can go calling things evil and have a proper conversation. And if what you mean is external and objective then you're flat out of luck, 'cause that just doesn't exist.

Andres Ruiz said...

"Is that really true? I wonder. I suspect that some of the intuitive pull of the argument may often be due something like a feeling of outrage."

I can only speak to my own reasoning about this. When I think about the suffering in nature I feel no moral outrage. I do sometimes perhaps feel sadness at the fact that nature can be so cruel. I feel sadness at creatures who died needlessly in forest fires. Though I think the difference between sadness and moral outrage are very sharp here.

I do feel outrage at the suffering of animals in factory farms because that suffering is caused by other individuals for no greater justifying reason other than the fact that we enjoy the taste of their flesh.

When I put on my theistic glasses and try to look at the world through that worldview, the feeling of sadness that I felt for animals before has been replaced by sadness and moral outrage. Outrage like what I feel when considering factory farming.

So I do think we're explicitly reasoning conditionally in arguments from natural evil.

"Certainly you can. But consider two moral intuitions:
1. The Rwanda genocide was an evil.
2. If there were moral values such as the theist describes them, then there wouldn't be anything that would justify a God in permitting the Rwanda genocide.

Moral intuition (1) is typically much stronger. It's just obvious that the Rwanda genocide was a horrendous evil, and hence an evil.

Moreover, categorical intuitions are typically more reliable than hypothetical intuitions, especially when the hypothesis is one that is distant from one's own views.

So, yes, the nihilist atheist can consistently run the argument from evil, but only at the cost of holding on to something significantly more problematic--namely, the denial of (1)--than what the theist has to hold--namely, the denial of (2)."


I agree with this. Though I brought in considerations about the potential nihilist in order to show that one need not commit to any moral values at all in order to run arguments from evil.

However, plenty of non-believers can hold 1 and 2. Moral realists, moral constructivists, etc. can indeed hold 1 is true in virtue of the fact that the perpetrators of the genocide were agents whom it is perfectly reasonable to direct outrage towards.


So, yes, regardless of your meta-ethical commitments, I don't think one needs to commit to the fact that the suffering found in nature is worthy of moral outrage. That is because it simply doesn't make sense in light of the naturalist worldview. Only when considering the world through theistic glasses is outrage brought to the forefront.

Alexander R Pruss said...

You might be right about outrage and naturalists. I was actually aiming the argument at a theist I know who felt a pull to such feelings of outrage, to show that the feelings might be taken to support his or her theism.

By the way, I fully agree that you can be an atheist and think genocide to be evil. I do, however, think that atheists will have a much greater problem with evolutionary debunking arguments against moral realism. These arguments don't claim to establish that moral realism is false, but they do make it difficult to claim to know moral truths.

Unknown said...

March Hare,

First, you have still not engaged with my point about the problem with your change to premise 3. I take it then that you accept my point. Cool. For yourself then, the problem of animal pain is (to some degree) less of a problem now for the theist.

Second, do you think that the set of individuals who are moral realists (full-blown or partial) is smaller than the set of individuals who are moral anti-realists? If so, then I think you believe something that is 'crazypants.' If not, then what would be fundamentally problematic about invoking morality in the argument? I don't see a non-question-begging and/or relevant answer forthcoming.

Third, there just isn't a problem with implicitly assuming a deity. It's a methodological error to think otherwise. The scientific method (if there even is such a determinative thing) would not get off the ground if the only arguments (i.e. explanations) one could run are ones that have assumptions and premises everyone already believes. "Believing" being distinct from "believing for-the-sake-of."

Unknown said...

"Only when considering the world through theistic glasses is outrage brought to the forefront."

That is too quick. It would be nice to have some X-phi (or something similar) stuff on this.

I also wonder if the phenomenon might be connected to the intentional stance in some strange way.

March Hare said...

Unknown, I'm not sure exactly what you're referring to so let me try to reformulate the Premise 3 issue:

Orig: If naturalism is true, then no one is responsible for the suffering of animals before the advent of humankind.

MH: Animals are (limited) moral actors and so are, partly, responsible for the suffering of some animals before the advent of humankind.

I'm not sure what part of this you took exception to. Alex was implicitly using the advent of humanity, and with it morality, as 'proof' that naturalism is false, I was simply pointing out that an unspoken assumption in one of his premise's was unsound/untrue. I wasn't attempting to say anything about theistic arguments in general, just this precise formulation of the argument. Although I did go on to challenge the content of the argument, albeit much better phrased by Andres Ruiz.

March Hare said...

As to your other points:

There are many more moral realists, even within philosophy departments (60-40), than non-realists. Fortunately reality does not bend to democratic will.
"what would be fundamentally problematic about invoking morality in the argument?"
Well, there would be an assumption made by both parties that they were talking about the same thing and they'd be completely wrong. As in the car example I gave above - both say it's a bad car and one could take it away and put in a bigger engine to make it better whereas the other would think that made it worse.

"Third, there just isn't a problem with implicitly assuming a deity."
Indeed, it gains you nothing but there isn't a problem. The problem comes when you assume an interventionalist deity (theity?).
I'm not sure I want to run two (what the scientific method is) conversations on the same topic on the same blog, so please look into http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/sacrificing-fine-tuning-argument-to.html where the impact on science of supernatural forces is being touched upon.

Unknown said...

" I wasn't attempting to say anything about theistic arguments in general"

Apparently, you never understood my point. It is the following: by saying some animals are moral actors, you effectively weaken the problem of animal pain/evil.

I'm at a loss as to how to make that point more understandable.

" there would be an assumption made by both parties that they were talking about the same thing and they'd be completely wrong."

You seem to believe things that run contrary to the methodology of discussing, arguing, etc. This is perhaps the best explanation for your use of odd words like "sacrosanct" in connection to a premise. Or odd things like this *** (down below). It is also a good explanation for why you did not seem to understand the difference between validity and soundness. Moreover, it is also a good explanation for why you did not understand the point I was making about your attack on premise 3. Finally, it is a good explanation of why you are confused when somebody implicitly assumes a deity (of any sort) in an argument.


I am afraid that the problems noted here have re-surfaced in your comments on other threads of this blog. Which is a possible explanation for why some commenters do not seem to respond to some of the things you are saying.

***"My point is that since morality is a mish-mash of values, preferences and feelings within a person there is no objective evil that two people can accurately talk about...

We need to know what someone means by evil before we can go calling things evil and have a proper conversation. And if what you mean is external and objective then you're flat out of luck, 'cause that just doesn't exist."

March Hare said...

Unknown: "by saying some animals are moral actors, you effectively weaken the problem of animal pain/evil."

That's somewhat irrelevant to the point I was making. All I did in my original point about Premise 3 was to show that the argument as formulated was not as good as the author appeared to think.

If I may quote myself: "My objection to 3 is that it seems to say moral responsibility only appears when humans come on the stage - I disagree and say that other animals are also moral actors so there is someone to blame for (at least some of) their suffering."

I can make the argument from evil (not one I care to make unless someone posits a perfect and/or omnibenevolent creator) but I haven't. Or I can attack the argument made by the author in several ways, by showing a problem with a premise as above or by showing how the argument is fundamentally misstating the naturalist's argument from evil as I did (Andres Ruiz stated it more succinctly).

But you seem to take a valid point about one of the original premises as an attack on a theist's worldview and try to refute it by saying it enhance's a theist's worldview. Which is completely irrelevant to the original point.

Unknown said...

"you seem to take a valid point about one of the original premises as an attack on a theist's worldview and try to refute it by saying it enhance's a theist's worldview. Which is completely irrelevant to the original point."

This will be my last comment on this (though I will read whatever else you throw up). I never attempted to refute anything. I simply provided a reason against changing premise 3 in that manner. It was a reason grounded on the relationship of the problem of animal pain to the argument Alex presented.

If you did not care about the force of the argument from animal pain, then you would be right about the relevance of my point in a limited way. It would not be relevant to you. However, that's not a significant sort of relevance.

--------

The only other way I can make sense out of this is if you simply believed with all certainty that some non-humans were moral actors. If so, then fine. For yourself then, you understand the problem of animal pain to be less of a problem than other non-theists (who don't think some animals were moral actors) understand it to be.