Friday, November 28, 2014


It seems to be widely accepted in the philosophy of religion community that supposing God's merely compensating a person for evils suffered will not make for a good theodicy. Rather, the evils must be defeated in a way that goes over and beyond compensation, that draws a defeating good out of the evil. I think that in many cases this conviction might well be mistaken. Compensation may well be good enough.

Start with this story:

You are a financially well-off Olympic archer. You are about to take your last shot at the Olympics, indeed at the last Olympics you will ever compete at (you have promised your spouse to hang up your bow after these Olympics) and whether you get a gold medal depends on this shot. Getting a gold medal means a lot to you. At the same time, you see in the stands a vicious dog attacking me. You could turn your bow on the dog, and painlessly kill it at this range (nor would it be wrong to do so; the dog will be put down anyway after the vicious attack). There is no other way for the attack to be stopped. But then you would lose your last chance for a gold medal: the dog is not the official target. You also know that what kind of a dog it is and how terrified of dogs I am, so that you know that if that were the whole story, the sufferings that I would endure through being bitten are so great that your gold medal wouldn't be worth it: you would have a duty to shoot the dog. But you also know me well enough to know for sure that I would survive the attack without permanent damage, and that you have a sum of money that you could give me such that both by my own lights and objectively I'd be much better off bitten and compensated than neither bitten nor compensated. You resolve to compensate me financially, take your shot at the target, win your gold medal, write me a large check, and we are both much better off for this.
This is a clear case of compensation for evil rather than defeat of evil. At the same time, your failure to stop the attack is justified. I chose this case so that my own biases would go against the justification. I am in fact terrified of dogs. Being bitten again would be a truly horrific experience. Nonetheless, if you gave me a sum of money sufficient to pay off the rest of our mortgage and there was no permanent damage, I think it would be well-worth being bitten. (I don't think I would go for it for half of the mortgage!)

Notice what compensation does here. The good you achieve by allowing me to be bitten—the gold medal—is insufficient to justify your permitting me to be bitten. (If this isn't true, we can tweak the case so it is.) But when you add your resolve to compensate me, and your knowledge that the compensation would be sufficient both objectively and by my own lights, you come to be justified.

An important feature of this story is that the good you achieve—the gold medal—is one to which my sufferings are not a means, and indeed you do not intend my sufferings either as an end or as a means. (Here one remembers Double Effect, of course.) But there is an end that you are pursuing, and your pursuit of this end precludes your preventing the evil.

There are many real-world cases that might well have this structure. Consider Rowe's fawn dying painfully in a forest fire. God could miraculously prevent this, but doesn't, because he wants the laws of nature to have as few exceptions as possible. Now, it's good, I suppose, that the laws of nature have as few exceptions as possible. But this good does not seem to be sufficiently great to justify several days of the fawn suffering. However, if God resolves to compensate the fawn in an afterlife, to a degree such that both objectively and by the fawn's lights (to the extent that the fawn is capable of making the relevant judgments) the fawn will be much better off for having both the suffering and the compensation, then we will have the structure of the archery-dogbite case.

I do not know that the compensation story will work for every case. One worry is that if you foreknew that the dog would bite and were responsible for the dog's presence in the stands in the light of this foresight, then the justification in the compensation story is less clear, even if you don't intend the dog's biting. So there will be relevant questions about determinism, Molinism and the like in the theological cases.

Here's another interesting thing, by the way, about the fawn case. The compensation would not have to come in an afterlife. Suppose:

You are a super-rich archer. You know that sometimes dogs show up and bite people in one area of the stadium. So ahead of time you write sufficiently large checks to all these people such that both objectively and by their lights they would be much better off for having the check and the dogbite than for having neither. And then when it's time to compete, you don't even need to think about the dogs.
This seems quite justifiable as well. So if God sufficiently compensates all deer that are in danger of forest fires ahead of time, all is well, too.

Note, though, that in general pre-compensation works less well for human sufferers than for non-human sufferers. For humans see their lives as a narrative, and the narrative structure and order of events matters a lot as a result. So in the case of a human it is particularly tragic if existence ends in a particularly bad way, no matter how good the earlier parts were. So compensation for evils that happen around the time of death still likely requires an afterlife in the case of humans. (And even in the case of non-human animals, it may be better for God to compensate in an afterlife, since it would require fewer miracles in this world.)


Heath White said...

It seems to me that compensation is okay in principle, but I can think of a couple of issues.

1. Can every evil be compensated? AFAIK, the category of “defeat” was introduced to the debate by M. Adams to solve the problem posed by “horrendous evils,” viz. those which make the victim’s life not a great good to her. The thought is that nothing COULD compensate for suffering a horrendous evil.

2. What is the baseline? This is particularly an issue when we think of this-worldly pre-compensation. I have a pretty nice life and don’t deeply deserve my good fortune. How much suffering does my cushy tenured job, for instance, compensate me for? How many people are not already compensated, in this life, for the evils they suffer?

3. I have some inclination to say that involuntarily imposing evils on someone while compensating them for it, even if the compensation makes suffering the evil worthwhile by the sufferer’s own lights, is nevertheless a form of tyranny or oppression. For example, if the city government were to take my house by eminent domain, I’m sure there is some figure at which I would feel adequately compensated. But even at that figure, I wonder if I wouldn’t view the city government as somewhat despotic and untrustworthy. (I think there’s a difference in this case, where the gov’t has a duty to protect property rights, and the Olympic archer case where archers have no assigned duty to protect people in the stands from roving dogs.) The idea is that no amount of utility can make up for a violation of my rights. (But do I have any rights here?) I’m not totally sure about this.

The picture of God’s creative decision suggested is that God has (1) a global goal or set of goals—he wants to create the best possible world, e.g., but (2) a set of constraints about treating individuals justly—he will compensate them fairly for evils they undergo (but don’t deserve?). On this picture there are two quite different problems of evil: (1) the global question of why the world appears so lame when God could have made a better one; (2) the local question of why did some unfortunate individual suffer as they did. There are different issues of God’s moral character involved and different kinds of theodicies are available. Greater global goods don’t answer the local question, while arguing for God’s justice does not answer the global question.

This has been a very helpful post for getting my own thoughts in order. Thanks!

Alexander R Pruss said...


These are all excellent questions.

1. It's hard for me to imagine an evil that can happen *solely to me* in this life for which some compensation--perhaps a very long one--wouldn't suffice, other than an evil that morally corrupts me. (And that raises other questions, especially about free will.)

On the other hand, it may be that no compensation to me would adequately compensate me for witnessing horrendous evils to those whom I love. Nonetheless, if *the ones I love* were compensated more than adequately, that might well be enough compensation for me as well. Again, I want to bracket off the evils that result in those whom I love becoming morally corrupt--those indeed deserve separate discussion.

Part of my thinking here is how our life is less than a blink in the face of eternity.

As for making the victim's life not a great to her, I could perhaps imagine that happening with a fairly modest and easily compensable evil. Suppose I suffer two seconds of such intense physical pain that I forget about every good that ever happens or could happen to me. And then, poof, the pain goes away, and (perhaps by miracle) I am completely unscarred. While I was suffering the pain, it certainly *felt* like my life was not a great good to me. But two seconds of physical pain seems a paradigmatic case of something compensable.

2. I don't know how many are not already compensated. Maybe if we had the right attitude of gratitude we would all see ourselves as pre-compensated. But I don't want to rely on any such controversial claim.

3. Here I want to distinguish between intentional imposition and allowing. And there are, I suspect, finer grained distinctions. Intentional imposition is what gives rise to worries about tyranny.

But does standing-by give rise to similar worries. Maybe, but I'm not sure. Consider two scenarios:

I. My original archer story, except that the archer is an animal control officer, and the arrangements for her participation in the Olympics are such that she continues to be on duty while at the Olympics.

II. Same as case I, except that instead of the animal-control-officer Olympic archer compensating me, a machine has been set up, independently of the archer's will, such that it gives me that very large sum of money if and only if I've been bitten.

In both cases, the archer is probably violating her duties to care for public safety as an animal control officer. I take that for granted. But is the archer wronging *me* in either case? In case II, I see no wronging at all. By shooting the dog, the archer would be depriving me of what both I'd rationally prefer to get and what would be objectively better for me.

Now maybe in Case I there is a wrong to me that isn't present in Case II. But I have a hard time seeing what it is.

There is, of course, in both cases the violation of the duties of an animal control officer. In Case II, the animal control officer's professional duties require her to do what's worse for me.

But God is not in a position like that, I think. The main reason animal control officers' professional duties sometimes require them to do what's worse for people is because human judgment is fallible and we don't want them making such judgment calls--we want them controlling vicious animals. An omniscient creator isn't in that position.

Your final remarks are helpful, too.