OHPT: Thoughts on Theodicy (Chapter 16)

This chapter went down smoooooth like a good bourbon. I’m not sure why — perhaps because I am more familiar with this aspect of philosophy and theology (and their ornery offspring philosophical theology) or perhaps because Michael J. Murray is an excellent writer and communicator? Maybe because he references Leibniz and Plantinga?? That certainly made my intellectual heart go pitter pat.

The book that got me into philosophy in the first place. Its yellowed, sun-bleached spine has a treasured place on my bookshelf.

“Theodicy”, was written by Dr. Michael J. Murray. Murray is the Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor in the Humanities and Philosophy at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He earned his BA from Franklin and Marshall College, and earned his MA and PhD at the University of Notre Dame. Side note: why do all these people come from Notre Dame?! I know it’s a great school for this subject, but come on. I really side-eye collections like this that have so many contributors coming from the same training grounds… and who also have the same demographic profile…. it really tends to result in a homogeneous echo chamber. Not a fan.

BUT ANYWAY, MURRAY. His research focuses on philosophy and theology in the seventeenth century, with a particular focus on the work of Gottfried Leibniz. LEIBY! Second side note: I want to get my husband a shirt that says “Team Newton” and me a shirt that says “Team Leibniz.” If someone gets it and laughs, they are automatically friends for life. (Chris is not as enthusiastic about this plan as I am, so he’s no longer my friend).

BUT ANYWAY, MURRAY. Murray’s research also focuses on contemporary philosophy of religion, most recently on the problem of evil and animal suffering, along with cognitive and evolutionary accounts of the origin and continued existence of religious belief and practice. This second focus is something I really, really get excited about and would love to read more of. So basically, I’m not done with Murray. Or he’s not done with me?? Time will tell.

Onto Theodicy!

Theodicy is the term for theistic attempts to explain evil. It’s the term for when philosophers and theologians attempt to provide an answer to the Problem of Evil that preserves the existence of God (in the case of this book, the Judeo-Christian God).

Murray lays out 3 conditions for a successful theodicy, for a theodicy that satisfactorily responds to the problems raised by the existence of evil in a world supposedly created by an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful deity.

  • The Necessity Condition: The good secured by the permission of the evil, E, would not have been secured without permitting either E or some other evils morally equivalent to or worse than E.
  • The Outweighing Condition: The good secured by the permission of the evil is sufficiently outweighing.
  • The Rights Condition: It is within the rights of the one permitting the evil to permit it at all. (Quoted in its entirety from p. 356)

Some theologians challenge the Necessity Condition, saying (if you’ll recall from past discussions of God’s knowledge) that God doesn’t have knowledge of future events. She knows how things have been, how things are, but is not certain how things will turn out. (This is the Open Theism position.) BUT even if God didn’t know how things will turn out, this doesn’t take her entirely off the hook in terms of responsibility. She creates knowing there is the possibility of evil, and even knowing of the possibility of evil, chooses to create anyway. This casts God as a bit reckless.

The Outweighing Condition is one I found the most interesting. It’s very utilitarian in nature (Kant would disapprove). To make a judgment about whether an evil is “sufficiently outweighed” by whatever good it enables (a good that is dependent on the evil by necessity), we would need to know specific causal relationships that are potentially very difficult to parse out: “Some evils might be necessary conditions for outweighing goods not realized for hundreds or thousands of years” (355). How could we begin to follow the causal chain of such evils and goods without omniscience? How could we possibly project or predict goods that far in the future, goods that may even be beyond our ability to imagine, without omniscience?

This complication leads into the Rights Condition, where some argue that the outweighing good needs to be a good for the victim of the evil. It’s not enough that some outweighing good for the world as a whole comes into being because of an evil; the victim needs to experience the good, otherwise this makes individual people means to the world’s end, rather than ends in themselves (Kant would disapprove). HOWEVER, some argue that if this were true, if evil has to produce outweighing good for the victim, then it would be an act of cruelty to intervene in an evil. By intervening, we obstruct the outweighing good the victim would experience if she experiences the evil we prevented.

Murray then gives a summary of six kinds of theodicies (explanations of evil): The Punishment Theodicy (evil as divine punishment to achieve rehabilitation, deterrence, societal protection, or retribution); the Natural Consequence Theodicy (evils as consequences of immoral choices); the Free Will Theodicy (moral evil is the result of free creatures “using their freedom in morally blameworthy ways” [362]); the Natural Law Theodicy (evil is the inevitable or necessary consequence of creating the kind of regular, orderly world needed to produce intelligent creatures and create the conditions for freedom); Soul-Making Theodicies (God allows evil in order to give us opportunity to cultivate virtues that could only be cultivated with the existence of evil); and Theodicies of Animal Suffering (attempts to explain why animals suffer when they are not considered capable of blameworthy acts).

This was a fantastic chapter. Murray didn’t offer a theodicy he thought was most satisfactory, though I do know he is interested in animal theodicies. But what I mostly got out of it was the realization that I just do not find any theodicy satisfying. I think there is a strong possibility of combining several to make something more satisfying, but I’m not sure I see what a satisfying combo would be (at least not at the moment). Also, the outweighing condition every theodicy needs to explain or justify seems to end with, or lead to, a logical gap necessitating a leap to faith in God’s goodness: It’s impossible to be confident in our causal reasoning about goods being dependent on certain evils and the potential for long-term causal relationships that are inaccessible to our limited intellect; therefore, the solution is to trust that God’s judgment, knowledge, and benevolence are such that we can trust her to have allowed only those evils which are outweighed by their good consequences. On one hand, none of these theodicies are logically incoherent. On the other, they are not practically satisfying.

Some other questions an exploration of these theodicies brought up for me:

  • When comparing a world with free creatures and the evil freedom brings with it to a world without free creatures (aka, no humans?) and no evil, how would we really compare the two? What standards would we use, as it seems like “good” and “evil” are only meaningful in the presence of free acting? Aren’t those terms somewhat dependent on, or constrained by the prior condition of, free creatures?
  • For the Natural Law Theodicy, if our freedom is constrained by the natural laws of the world, does that mean our freedom is constrained by the way our brain operates according to these same laws? If so, what does that mean for what we mean by freedom?
  • How does moral luck play in to all of these theodicies?
  • Murray emphasizes that “explaining” evil is not the same as “explaining it away.” However, explaining evil does tend to make some aspects of evil less horrifying. If we are saying that some evils are necessary, that does diminish the horror of evils, at least for observers. It may even provide a measure of comfort for those suffering. Does that matter? Does it cruelly diminish the suffering of others, or does it provide a more accurate view of the world that is good and therefore helpful in its own right? I think this line of thinking may give us a larger measure of grace for our fellow humans (caught up in a web of necessary evils, some of which we suffer and some of which we inflict) but might lead to a stronger antipathy and anger towards God.
  • Are humans truly ends in themselves? Do we see each other (or believe we should see each other) as separate and distinct ends because of how the West has conceived of the human? If we saw individuals as partly constituted by and constitutive of a greater whole, does that mean we need to see humans as both ends of and means to good, such that some suffering of evil is truly to be seen as necessary and good in its own right?

So many great things to chew on in this chapter. Also, if anyone comes up with an acronym or mnemonic device for the kinds of theodicies, I’m all ears.

Favorite quote:

What is good about free choice is not simply that I have the ability to choose among a list of items on a mental menu. Rather, what is good is that I have the ability to exercise my powers in my environment by means of my choices. I have the capacity to choose to show love to my spouse or my child and to do it. I have the ability to choose to sacrifice for the sake of my friend and to do it.

Murray 365

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