Thursday, April 21, 2022

Learning of secret wickedness

When people learn that some apparently really decent person was a hypocrite who secretly practiced execrable vices, that tends to shake people’s faith in God. We can explain this by noting that the case provides one with a vivid case of moral evil, which provides evidence against the existence of God.

But we already knew that there was a lot of moral evil out there. So the effect on belief in God should not be very significant. And it is worth noting that learning of cases like the above can actually help with the problem of evil. In our time, we are very hesitant to use the punishment theodicy for evils that happen to people. But learning that there are more people with terrible hidden vices than we thought increases the probability that any particular evil befalling an apparently decent adult might actually be a well-deserved punishment.

Of course, a punishment theodicy will only go so far. It doesn’t apply to animals or small children. And the Book of Job teaches that it doesn’t apply to all cases of adults either. But realizing the dark truth that people who appear to be exemplars of virtue can be quite wicked should open us to the possibility that the punishment theodicy applies to a lot more cases than we thought.

Of course, the more cases we have to which the punishment theodicy applies, the more moral evils we have that need a theodicy as well. But free will considerations can help a lot with moral evils.

So it may well be that learning of someone’s secret evils is a wash in terms of the evidential import of the evil for God’s existence.


ASBB said...

I've always been curious as to why these episodes shake people's faith (they have never moved me at all). After some reflection, I wonder if what's going in as follows. Perhaps some people's faith is so connected with their experience of the work of the Holy Spirt in people's lives, that when they come to believe that the Spirit has NOT been working in a person's life (a person who gave off so many signs of being a holy soul), they experience the shift in attitude one has towards one's sensory faculties when they find out they've been living in the Matrix the whole time.

ASBB said...

I said sensory faculties, but what I meant was, "they experience the same shift in attitude towards their religious-experiential faculties that one experiences towards one's sensory faculties when they find out they've been living in the Matrix the whole time"

The comment section really needs an edit button :)

Oktavian Zamoyski said...

How are we defining decency? And how are we determining decency? I think this is the first problem. If we operate under the presumption that any randomly selected person is "basically decent" until shown otherwise, then we are leaning on presumption and not experience, filling in the blanks of our ignorance with that presumption.

However, to what degree can someone live a double life among those who know him well without having the wicked life spill over into the other? To what degree can we compartmentalize? To what degree does secret wickedness undermine the whole and what has been heretofore observed as good? We could benefit from psychology here. This would allow us to determine to what degree the surprise of learning of secret wickedness is a consequence of presumption, ignorance, and perhaps naivete, and to what degree it is a question of having been understandably duped by a high functioning simulator. That is, can simulation ever be so good that no degree of human discernment could recognize it, or at least no reasonable degree?

One remaining option is that the guilty party isn't wicked in intent, only ignorant (to at least some degree) of the wickedness of the act, in which case there is little to no culpability and little to no problem to address vis-a-vis wickedness. Mental illness might be another option in the same vein.

Take Theodore Cardinal McCarrick. Most people who were duped were duped for the same reason they were duped about most clergy who remained undetected, namely, that they did not know them well and presumed their benevolence and shall we say purity by virtue of their station. This is especially true of the older, uneducated generation for whom it was impossible for a priest to be guilty of any such crime. Anyone with a bit of common sense, or if that weren't enough, educated in matters of Church history, will know that the priesthood does not magically suspend free will or confer wisdom, grace, or virtue, and in the latter case, will know of many instances of egregious perversions and treacherous acts that various members of the clergy have historically been involved in (including popes). This is an example of presumption and ignorance at work.

But now consider those who knew McCarrick personally. When I write of discernment, I do not mean discerning the particular acts someone is involved in, but the assessment of character. The surprise comes from the contradiction between apparent character and the disclosed secret wickedness. How many of those who knew McCarrick personally could have reasonably maintained a high opinion of his character based on the data of their experience, excluding the secret wickedness? What are the limits of induction?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mr Zamoyski:

Good questions. A case that I had in mind was a fellow philosopher, Jean Vanier, whom I once admired. It was my impression that generally he was thought of as a living saint ( ). Apart from the women whom he preyed on, did anyone know otherwise? It's not clear.

People were duped by Jean Vanier not so much because of his station as because of his many indisputably outwardly good actions (the NYT obituary is headed "Jean Vanier, Savior of People on the Margins, Dies at 90") and his wise and moving words (I went to a talk by him once and read some of what he wrote on the Gospel--both were deeply inspiring). Maybe in hindsight one can see signs of his wickedness in there, but could anyone see them at the time?