Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Self-inflicted sufferings, Maimonedes and anomaly

Suppose I know that if I go kayaking on a sunny day for two delightful hours, I will have mild muscle pains the next day. I judge that the price is well worth paying. I go kayaking and I then suffer the mild muscle pains the next day.

My suffering is not deserved. After all, suffering is something you come to deserve by wrongdoing, and I haven't done anything wrong. But it's also awkward to call it "undeserved". I guess it's non-deserved suffering.

It would be very implausible to run an argument from evil based on a case like this. And it's not hard to come up with a theodicy for it. God is under no obligation to make it possible for me to go kayaking on a sunny day and a fortiori he is under no obligation to make it possible for me to do so while avoiding subsequent pain. It is not difficult to think that the good of uniformity of nature justifies God's non-interference.

How far can a theodicy of this sort be made to go? Well, it extends to other cases where the suffering is a predictable lawlike consequence of one's optional activities. This will include cases where the optional activities are good, neutral or bad. Maimonedes, no doubt speaking from medical experience, talks of the last case at length:

The third class of evils comprises those which every one causes to himself by his own action. This is the largest class, and is far more numerous than the second class. It is especially of these evils that all men complain,only few men are found that do not sin against themselves by this kind of evil. Those that are afflicted with it are therefore justly blamed .... This class of evils originates in man's vices, such as excessive desire for eating, drinking, and love; indulgence in these things in undue measure, or in improper manner, or partaking of bad food. (Guide for the Perplexed, XII)

Maimonedes divides evils into three classes:

  1. evils caused by embodiment,
  2. evils inflicted by us on one another, and
  3. self-inflicted evils.
In the third class he only lists self-inflicted evils that are inflicted by bad activity, but we can extend the class as above. He insists that evils in the first and second classes are "very few and rare" and says that "no notice should be taken of exceptional cases".

The last remark is quite interesting. It goes against the grain of us analytic philosophers—exceptions are our bread and butter, it seems. But Maimonedes' insight, which mirrors Aristotle's remarks about precision in ethics, is deep and important. It suggests that the evils for which there is a plausible "problem of evil", namely the evils of the first and second classes, are an anomaly, and should be handled as such (for a development of this idea, see this paper by Dougherty and Pruss, in Oxford Studies).


Heath White said...

I have to say, class 2, "evils inflicted by us on one another," seems to me like a quite large and non-anomalous set of evils. Most moral evil falls into this category, and everyone commits moral evils.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yeah. Maybe Maimonedes thinks that they are anomalous within the class of events, but not anomalous within the class of evils? Something like the thought MacDonald is giving here?

Heath White said...

Maybe so. But then the way to understand the problem of evil is as pointing out a large, persistent "anomaly" (in the Kuhnian sense) in the "theory" of a 3-O God ruling the universe.

MiloŇ° said...

Moral evil is not anomaly at all regarding Christian theism. If we test specific Christian claims we can except large amount of moral evil and even many cases of moral blindness.

I have read linked paper, it is very detailed and creative exposition of problem.

Alexander R Pruss said...

What Trent and I do is not say that evil is an anomaly, but something like this: apparently gratuitous evil is an anomaly.

Among the evils imposed by one person on another, most of them are not apparently gratuitous, but are simply handled by a free will theodicy. Let's say that I lose my temper with a family member and hurt her feelings by speaking more harshly than I ought. As long as the hurt is not of really large magnitude, a free will theodicy handles this quite nicely: a world where God prevented all minor to moderate emotional hurts would be a world where we would clearly lose out by not having the goods of freely chosen kindness.

Most sins of most people are of this sort: they impose a minor to medium harm on another, and a simple freedom theodicy handles them.

Of course, a simple freedom theodicy is not very plausible when one gets to such things as torture. But such cases really are exceptional. Of course, that should not make us slacken our efforts to eliminate them entirely, but they do seem somewhat anomalous.

Heath White said...

I read the paper and I liked it a lot. Two thoughts:

- It seems that the more comprehensive the theory, the greater the number and types of anomalies it can absorb (i.e. are not incompatible with rationally believing it), because the number of cases it covers gets very large very quickly. When we get to super-comprehensive theories, like theism, this tends to unfalsifiability: it gets hard to imagine what sort of anomaly would be a defeater.

- The difficulty is compounded when the theory in question does not make exact predictions. So a scientific Unified Theory of Everything would make very precise, testable predictions, but "theism" (or even "Roman Catholic Christianity" etc.) is much vaguer in its prescriptions. This also tends toward unfalsifiability, as it is not clear what counts as anomalous.

So some interesting follow-up reflections might address whether theism has this (near-) unfalsifiable character, and whether/to what extent that is a defect in a theory.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I like the remark about comprehensiveness leading to unfalsifiability. This reminds me of the discussion of the falsifiability of evolution. It IS falsifiable, but barely so.

Mathematical theorems are unfalsifiable but true. :-)