Why moral arguments don’t answer the problem of evil

Moral concerns are often brought up by theists (particularly Christian apologists) to defray or counter the problem of evil. Although rhetorically persuasive, all such replies are meritless.

Meta-ethical moves: “How do you account for evil?”

Perhaps the commonest approach is a sort of meta-ethical reversal. On hearing Atheist attempt to offer an argument from evil, Christian offers something like this sort of meta-ethical challenge:

Alright, but before I answer that, I think you need to offer an account of what evil is. It seems Atheism/Naturalism/Whatever is poorly resourced to ground objective moral values. It seems until you give such an account you can’t really press this argument from evil. Indeed, until you do so the fact of evil (and the objective moral values it implies) is evidence for Theism!

I think this is the sort of moral argument challenge, made as charitably as I can. You see it in C. S. Lewis (at least in some readings), some of the more popular offerings by Craig, other popularizers like Strobel, Zaccharias, and generally all over the popular discussion. However, this response is simply inapposite.

It could be the case that the moral argument offers stronger reasons to believe in god than evil does. One would need to weigh up the merits of both arguments and see which comes out on top. But that doesn’t make the moral argument a response to the problem of evil: in the face of one argument, one can always point to a different argument and claim it is stronger. If that is what Theist had in mind, he should let Atheist present the argument from evil, try and show it has little merit, and then offer the moral argument as part of this stronger case. Insisting Atheist deal with the moral argument as a precondition for a hearing of the argument from evil is misguided: after all, maybe the argument from evil is stronger than theist’s case.

Generally, this sort of reply is meant in a stronger sense, that somehow atheism’s perceived inability to account for objective moral values (Moral Realism is proper philosophical jargon) prevents Atheist from being able to run a problem of evil. Yet this is false – even if Atheist is a moral irrealist (or atheism really can’t support moral realism) he can still run the argument, even in evidential form, as a reductio.

For although Atheist might not believe in moral facts, Theist does. And assuming Theist’s normative claims aren’t completely crazy (see later), all the paradigmatic cases of evil (fawn’s in forest fires, sexually abused children, Lisbon Earthquake) are going to be bad states of affairs, and not the sort of thing you’d expect God to permit. So given these normative commitments, and the factual record, Theism appears (prima facie) falsified.

It is counter-productive for Theist’s case for him to raise the specter that moral realism can’t be true on Atheism. For Atheist can simply reply like so: “Okay, so maybe moral realism isn’t true after all: but if moral realism is false, so is Theism. So although I have the luxury of being able to deny moral realism, you don’t. Either moral realism is true and you need to answer this argument, or moral realism is false, and God does not exist. Win-win for me!”

Again, it could be the case that a) the only possible account of moral realism demands theism, and b)  moral realism. If so, then (a) and (b) are in conflict with (c) “by moral realism, there are gratuitous evils”. So we would need to drop one of these, and so some people might end up dropping (c). Which one they should drop depends on how confident they are of (a), (b), and (c), and you work that out by evaluating the arguments for each. Merely giving a plausible moral argument that Atheist cannot respond to would not be enough to defuse the argument from evil until you show this argument is less plausible than yours. So, again, the ‘trumping’ demand of “until you answer the moral argument you can’t run the argument from evil” just misunderstands the dialectic.

Meaningfulness Moves: “If atheism is true, all suffering is just atoms bouncing around”

Another common reply-that-isn’t to the problem of evil is to say something like this:

If atheism is true, all suffering is just atoms bouncing off each other – the universe is just meaningless, and we’re all just killing time before our deaths. It makes no sense for an atheist to ask the universe ‘why’ a particular evil occurred – it is just bad luck – a quirk on our way to heat death of the universe. In contrast, God offers a much more fulfilling explanation, both of the meaning of suffering, and what is to come.

Again, I’m not going to address the factual points assumed here (does atheism have to say everything is meaningless, or of no value?) Rather, let’s just grant it.

This reply suggests atheism’s account for suffering is pretty depressing, whilst theism’s is much more fulfilling. But so what? More fulfilling doesn’t mean more true. Maybe the truth of the matter just is we live in a meaningless uncaring universe, and the argument from evil helps demonstrate this. If that’s so, then that’s so: a point that theism offers a less depression story doesn’t rebut this point.

Ethical moves: “It is fine for God’s justice to entail killing loads of children. Who are you to say otherwise”

Another ‘moral argument’-esque sort of move is to simply deny the normative claim in question:

You say that the Mutilation (a case of a young woman being beaten, raped, and her arms cut off) is an unjustified evil, but I don’t think it is evil at all. On my view of God all of us are totally deprave, and we deserve infinite suffering: so this woman (like everyone else), deserved not just the mutilation but something even worse. So I don’t see any such cases of problematic evil, and to say there are just begs the question against my conception of God.

Apparently these sorts of replies are sometimes made by Calvinists and evangelicals. At least unlike the first two sorts of replies this one is on point: this argument is at least valid in that if what they say is true, this really does defuse the argument from evil. However, it remains meritless because the premises are completely crazy.

A normative view that says something like “any given person deserves to suffering something even worse than having their arms cut off, being beaten, and being raped”, is the sort of view that can be dismissed out of hand, in the same way we can dismiss views that say the earth is hollow or racism is okay. Sincerely affirm these views is pathognomic for improper moral functioning, and we can happily drop such people from our community of judgement.

Of course, this reply is still question begging, but I simply can’t take such normative views seriously, and I suspect most people can’t either. So if Christianity entails these sorts of views, then this is plausibly an even stronger argument against Christianity to most people that the argument from evil these views accommodate.



One response to Why moral arguments don’t answer the problem of evil

  1. Pingback: The Polemical MedicIf Atheism, whither moral facts? (or moral faculties?) » The Polemical Medic

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