Friday, April 1, 2022

Defining horrendous evils

Marilyn Adams famously defines horrendous evils as follows:

  1. Evils the participation in which (that is, the doing or suffering of which) constitutes prima facie reason to doubt whether the participant’s life could (given their inclusion in it) be a great good to him/her on the whole.

This epistemically-based definition doesn’t really capture the relevant category because of the background-dependence of reasons.

Note that the quotation above is ambiguous as to who is to have the prima facie reason: the participant or the observer. If the observer, then whether an evil is horrendous is observer-dependent, which seems quite mistaken.

If the participant, then we still have a problem (and in fact the following problems apply, with different wording, in the observer-dependent case as well). For suppose that I have fully internalized the absurd view that suffering is always good. Then no matter what the suffering is, it does not give me any prima facie reason to doubt that my life is a great good to me on the whole, and so I can never suffer a horrendous evil—yet that seems mistaken. Or, on the contrary, suppose I have internalized the nearly as absurd view that the only good life is a life without any suffering. Then any suffering gives me prima facie reason to doubt whether the my life could be a great good to me on the whole, and hence a mosquito bite is a horrendous evil—which again seems mistaken.

What if we de-epistemicize the definition, by saying something like this?

  1. Evils the participation in which make the participant’s life not be a great good to him/her on the whole.

But now suppose that apart from one mosquito bite, Alice’s life is just about the “great good” line, and the mosquito bite brings the life below that line. Then by (2), the mosquito bite is a horrendous evil—and that seems mistaken.

We could try for something like this:

  1. Evils such that it is metaphysically impossible for the participant’s life to be a great good to him/her on the whole.

But if we did that, then Adams’ other commitments would force her to deny that there are any horrendous evils (since given her picture of God’s love and power, God ensures everyone’s life is a great good to them). That, I guess, would be good news. But that’s not Adams’ view.

I don’t have an alternative, besides the unrigorous:

  1. Really bad evils.


Apologetics Squared said...

I would challenge 4. The notion of "horrendous evils" seems to fit better with:
5. Really really bad evils.

Alexander R Pruss said...


James Reilly said...

Hi Professor Pruss. I was wondering if you'd happen to come across Mike Almeida's recent paper, where he argues that S5 entails that "independent evidence for or against the existence of God is impossible":

It's an odd claim, to be sure.

Alexander R Pruss said...

This seems to me to be the usual problem for Bayesianism that it is hard to make sense of evidence for things that have the property that they are either necessary or impossible. The same problem comes up with regard to all mathematical claims. Yet clearly it is possible to have evidence for or against a mathematical claim: that Google says that 284 x 848 = 240832 is clearly evidence that 284 x 848 = 240832.

That problem IS a hard one, but it has little to do with God or axioms of modal logic beyond T. The arithmetical version, given that it can be posed about decidable propositions like multiplication problems, applies in System T.

James Reilly said...

That makes sense, thanks. Out of curiosity, do you think that this is a problem for cosmological arguments, or only for inductive arguments (of the sort given by people like Swinburne)? It seems to me like one could still make a deductive argument for theism (of the sort given by Aquinas, Feser, Koons, yourself, etc.), even if one doesn't think the probabilistic arguments work; however, when I emailed Almeida about this, he seemed to disagree (even going so far as to say that theists to accept S5 should consider fideism).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I suppose it's not an issue for deductive arguments.

But in any we accept non-deductive evidence for mathematical claims all the time. Almost everybody who uses math (engineers, scientists, school children, etc.) relies on other people's testimony about theorems rather than proving the theorems themselves.

nick hadsell said...

I think Adams' view is sufferer-dependent, and she would bite the bullet that irrational persons who don't see evil as evil don't suffer horrendous evils. Horrendous evils are specifically existential problems, ones that affect how sufferers, on their own terms, see meaning in their lives. So I don't think the view is vague. Horrendous evils are just on kind of evil.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Doesn't thins have the odd consequence that small children cannot suffer horrendous evils, since they do not have the kind of existential struggles that are needed for horrendous evils on this picture?

nick hadsell said...

Yes, I think it does. But horrendous evils are just one kind of evil. So they do not suffer a horror, but they do suffer other sorts of evils.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Fair enough, but I think the horrendous evils play a special role for Adams. They require of God a certain kind of defeat of the evil.

But if the difference between horrendous evils and the non-horrendous ones is merely epistemic, then I don't see any special kind of defeat being called for. God doesn't owe significantly less to a person just because they have a stupid theory of evil. And God doesn't owe significantly more to a person who stubbed their toe just because they erroneously think that prior to their accident their life was on the boundary between worth and not worth living.

You mention the existential in your comment. And I do think Adams cares about that. But the epistemic stuff in her definition doesn't capture the existential stuff. We can imagine someone who thinks that their life is not worth living, but who has no existential "issues" because of this. Maybe they are a really selfless person who lives to help others, or a person whose rational judgment is disconnected from their emotional life--a person who says in a Spock-like voice: "My life is not worth living. Fascinating." Conversely, we can imagine someone who fully thinks that their life is worth living, but they have a completely irrational angst as if they thought their life wasn't worth living.

It may be that the existential angsty stuff does call for a really special kind of divine response. But merely epistemic stuff does not.

nick hadsell said...

This is good.

So, I take Adams to see horrors as victim-relative in the sense that some people are just naturally disposed to take things harder than others. E.g., Bob's loss of his aunt will affect him differently from Jim's loss of his aunt, and this difference is partially explained by the fact that there are multiple, rational responses to this sort of loss (I am thinking something analogous to epistemic permissivism; maybe this is emotional permissivism).

But there are some responses to evil that are irrational in the ways you state, and I think that's a good place to press on the vagueness of horrors. I need to re-skim her work to see if she addressed this problem.

nick hadsell said...

I came across this passage in Marilyn Adams' "Caveat Emptor" essay that may be of interest to you:

First-person horror participation interferes with the person’s meaning-making capacities by making it prima facie impossible for her or him to make positive sense of her or his life. Severe depression turns everything tasteless, leaves its victims unable to perceive anything as worthwhile. Schizophrenia twists interpretations of life experience into something bizarre. Soldiers return from theaters of war with PTSD. Traumatized brains and psyches are unable to anchor the horrors of war firmly in the past, so that vivid experiences float and interrupt as if they were clear and present dangers. First-person horror participation may merely stump and stalemate the search for constructive ways to go on. But it is often “mind blowing” to the extent that individuals find it difficult to function well enough to get through the day.

nick hadsell said...

Ah, here we go. Adams addresses your worries in _Christ & Horrors_:

"This criterion is objective but relative to individuals. Nature and experience endow people with different strengths, so that one readily bears up under what crushes another. Since horrors are defined in terms of the prima facie loss of the possibility of positive personal meaning, and since personal meaning is partially framed by social symbols and roles, what counts as horrendous may to some extent vary from society to society..."

"I do not take the horror-participant’s own estimates of what is horrendous to be incorrigible: witness the curmudgeon or habitual complainers who know how to make the worst of a good situation, and the callous and unrepentant who think nothing of destroying others for material or political gain. But – pace Job’s friends – the victim’s estimates of how bad the suffering is are among the most significant data to be considered. So are sensitive and honest reflections on the twisting effects of perpetrating various evils. The bottom line is that participation in horrors is supposed to give both participants and onlookers prima facie reason to believe that the participant’s life is thereby deprived of the possibility of positive personal meaning."


Alexander R Pruss said...

I still think the epistemic focus is wrongheaded if the point is to capture these existential considerations. For the epistemic stuff can be largely separated from the existential. One can have tons of evidence that one's life is meaningless and ignore that evidence, and the opposite phenomenon is possible, too.

Here is another case. Suppose that I have evidence that an oracle is accurate, and the oracle tells me: "If someone tells you something in French today, your life has no meaning." Someone later tells me a very minor lie in French. On the Adams story, that very minor lie is a horrendous evil, because it gives me evidence that my life has no meaning. But if the same lie were told in English, it wouldn't be horrendous.

Now, that may sound right given your last quote from Adams. But I think it's still mistaken for the following reason. Suppose that the person told me a very minor truth in French. That would have exactly the same impact on my evidence about the meaning of my life, but in this case there would be no evil there, and hence no horrendous evil.

Thus, a very minor moral difference--between a very minor lie and a very minor truth--makes for the difference between a horrendous evil and something that isn't an evil at all, while the epistemic consequences are the same. This can't be right.

In other words, in Adams' account of horrendous evil, the evilness of the evil is not important--what is important is the epistemic impact. But good can have exactly the same epistemic impact as evil, as the oracle story shows.

Here's what I think Adams should do. Instead of identifying a category of evils based on their epistemic impact, she should identify that *impact* itself as the significant thing. Thus, what she should take as significant, and calling for defeat, is the belief that one's life is meaningless, or maybe a fully internalized such belief, or maybe a tendency to such belief, etc. Whether the evidence for that belief is evil, good, or neutral, or even if the belief has no evidence, the belief itself is the horrendous evil in question which needs to be defeated. (I am assuming here that such a belief is false, since I think all human life has positive meaning. If the belief in meaninglessness is true, it's harder to identify it as evil. In that case, maybe the horrendous evil is whatever grounds the truth of the belief.)

nick hadsell said...

You say there would be no evil if the oracle told a minor truth in French. I'm wondering: how is this not an evil? The event of finding out one's life is meaningless seems to qualify as a horror to me. It is like the turning point in a tragedy where the protagonist finds out some horrible truth. Why not think this is an evil of sorts?

Alexander R Pruss said...


As per my "impact" suggestion, I would say that the truth-telling isn't evil at all, but the resulting event of concluding one's life to be meaningless is the evil. The cause of an evil is not itself an evil just because it causes an evil, or even a horrendous one. Something can be unexceptionably good, and yet accidentally the cause of evil. Imagine the oracle said: "If the first word of the first Psalm is 'Barukh' in Hebrew, then your life is meaningless." You turn to Psalm 1 and read: "Barukh ish asher...", which makes you conclude your life is meaningless. But there is nothing evil about the first words of Psalm 1 ("Happy is the man who ...", etc.)