Evil in Our Best Interests

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Patrick Taylor posts at Prosblogion regarding a new paper by Jeff Jordan on the problem of evil. Some philosophers have claimed that any suffering God allows will ultimately be in the best interest of the person suffering. I'm not sure I can agree with this claim, but I also can't agree with what Jordan thinks follows from it. He thinks that if you believe something like this you'll have to accept that it's never wrong to cause someone to suffer, because if you cause them to suffer and God allows it, it's really in their best interest. Similarly, it shouldn't ever be ok to reduce anyone's suffering, because that would be reducing what God has set for them in terms of their best interest. I have to say that I can't see how Jordan's conclusions would follow from that view, and his confusion seems to be a fundamental sort of confusion that I don't normally see except in introductory philosophy classes. This is basically the fallacious argument that some have called the Lazy Sophism, though I'm not going to address it in those terms. The rest of this post is adapted from my comment on Patrick's post.

I have two things to say. First, I'm not sure why anyone would assume that the moral status of an action by an omniscient being would be the same as the moral status of the same action by someone who doesn't have the entire picture. If God won't allow it to happen unless it's best for the person, then my successfully doing it implies that it's for the person's best, but that doesn't mean I knew so beforehand, and it might be wrong for me to do it on those grounds.

Second, anyone who really believes God can work through the actions of a human being should easily dismiss the argument against alleviating suffering. It may well be that God is going to do what's best for a person by alleviating their suffering through my action. So why should I assume that it's always wrong to alleviate suffering? God's method of keeping the suffering as short as it needs to be might simply be through my alleviation of the person's suffering.

This point is assumed by the prophets and some other biblical authors. They provide some interesting examples of moral condemnation of those who are doing what in the end will be best for someone. The classic case is the condemnation of the Assyrian king in Isaiah chapter 10. This guy is condemned for his evil actions, and yet God says the guy is a tool in his hands in punishing his people, which in the wider context of the prophets can be seen in the light of the discipline intended eventually to rid the people of Judah of their idolatry. This is thus an immoral action that God uses in the pursuit of what's best for his people. The difference here isn't just in the Assyrian king's understanding of all the issues but in his motivation. God seeks to purify his people and bring them back to him. The Assyrian king simply seeks their destruction for his own glory among the nations.

So even if any suffering God allows is going to be best for the person suffering, it doesn't follow that alleviation of suffering is wrong or that it's never wrong to cause suffering.

2 Comments

However, haven't you also shown that if you allow suffering to happen, you haven't done anything wrong?

On a plausible view of morality, allowing a person to suffer when you could have easily stopped it is wrong.

But under you account, that isn't the case.

If you stop suffering, you are doing God's will. So, analogously, if you don't stop suffering, you are also doing God's will.

I mean, this would explain the Catholic church's position viz a viz AIDS and condoms. BUt most of think that position reflects a pretty deep policy and moral flailing.

No, that's the opposite of what I'm saying. I'm saying that even if the suffering is for the person's best, that doesn't necessarily mean it's right for us to allow it. One reason is that we don't know that it's for the person's best. The other is that there are good and bad motives for actions that might result in the same outcome, and even if an outcome is the best, allowing it or causing it can be wrong.

You need to distinguish between two difference ways something can be in God's will. Theologians typically describe this as God's moral will or general revealed will. That tells us what'a right and wrong to do. Then there's God's sovereign will, which involves what God ultimately will allow or cause to happen. We know so little about that that we can't presume to judge it without specific revelation. We must, therefore, go by what we understand of morality. Concluding that the existence of a sovereign will of God invalidates morality just seems to me to be a failure in reasoning.

As far as I know the Catholic position on AIDS and condoms is that the ends don't justify the means, and therefore you don't use something that clearly violates what they see as a direct command of God even if it's going to reduce suffering. It has nothing at all to do with suffering being good for someone.

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