Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Evil, omniscience, and other matters

If God exists, there are many evils that God doesn’t prevent, even though it seems that we would have been obligated to prevent them if we could.

A sceptical theist move is that God knows something about the situations that we don’t. For instance, it may seem to us that the evil is pointless, but God sees it as interwoven with greater goods.

An interesting response to this is that even if we knew about the greater goods, we would be obligated to prevent the evil. Say, Carl sees Alice about to torture Bob, and Carl somehow knows (maybe God told him) that one day Alice will repent of the evil in response to a beautiful offer of forgiveness from Bob. Then I am inclined to think Carl should still prevent Alice from torturing Bob, even if repentance and forgiveness are goods so great that it would have been better for both Alice and Bob if the torture happened.

Here is an interesting sceptical theist response to this response. Normally, we don’t know the future well enough to know that great goods would arise from our permitting an evil. Because of this, our moral obligations to prevent grave evils have a bias in them towards what is causally closer to us. Moreover, this bias in the obligations, although it is explained by the fact that normally we don’t know the future very well, is present even in the exceptional cases where we do know the future sufficiently well, as in the Carl, Alice and Bob case.

This move requires an ethical system where a moral rule that applies in all circumstances can be explained by its usefulness in normal circumstances. Rule utilitarianism is of course such an ethical system. Divine command theory is as well: God can be motivated to issue an exceptionless rule because of the fact that normally the rule is a good one and it might not be good for us to be trying to figure out whether a case at hand is an exception to the rule (this is something I learned from Steve Evans). And St. Thomas Aquinas in his argument against nonmarital sex holds that natural law is also like that (he argues that typically nonmarital sex is bad for the offspring, and concludes that it is wrong even in the exceptional cases where it’s not bad for the offspring, because, as he says, laws are made with regard to the typical case).

Historically, this approach tends to be used to derive or explain deontic prohibitions (e.g., Aquinas’ prohibition on nonmarital sex). But the move from typical beneficiality of a rule to its holding always does not require that the rule be a deontic prohibition. A rule that weights nearer causal consequences more heavily could just as easily be justified in such a way, even if the rule did not amount to a deontic prohibition.

Similarly, one might use typical facts about our relationships with those closer to us—that we know what is good for them better than for strangers, that they are more likely to accept our help, that the material benefits of our help enhance the relationship—to explain why helping those closer to us should be more heavily weighted in our moral calculus than helping strangers, even in those cases where the the typical facts do not obtain. Once again, this isn’t a deontic case.

One might even have such typical-case-justified rules in prudential reasoning (perhaps a bias towards the nearer future is not irrational after all) and maybe even in theoretical reasoning (perhaps we shouldn’t be perfect Bayesian agents after all, because that’s not in our nature, given that normally Bayesian reasoning is too hard for us).


steve said...

"And St. Thomas Aquinas in his argument against nonmarital sex holds that natural law is also like that (he argues that typically nonmarital sex is bad for the offspring…"

Doesn't that require an Epicurean assumption? Prenatal nonexistence (and/or postmortem nonexistence) is preferable to unideal existence?

Even if kids are normally better off having married parents, are they better off not existing in the first place that if they are bastards? While it's normally worse to be a bastard than to have married parents, is it worse to be a bastard than not to exist at all? Doesn't life have compensations even if one gets off to a rocky start?

I'm not using this to justify fornication, but just probing the Thomistic argument.

steve said...

For instance, it's better to be born sighted than to be born blind (or deaf), but from a Christian standpoint, we wouldn't infer that it's better not to be born at all than to be born blind. The fact that something is bad for a person doesn't mean nonexistence is preferable.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am not defending Aquinas' particular argument, but the general form of such arguments. For instance, the argument may become better if we say that it's bad for society if children are not raised by two parents.