This is the the thirty-first post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I continued looking at responses to a set of questions about particular kinds of evil or ways of evil that come up in the evidential problem of evil. This post contains a detour on one general problem with questions of this sort, before we return to the final question in the next post (which I had originally intended to treat here as well, but I thought each discussion was long enough to deserve separate posts).
Several of the questions I've been looking at have problems with vagueness. I don't mean that the questions are not stated clearly. I mean that they are talking about phenomena that admit of degrees, and the nature of vagueness in our ability to speak about such phenomena precisely will sometimes lead to problems when we ask moral questions about these matters. It will help to restate the general sort of problem, and then I'll identify where the difficulty can sometimes lie.
So it might well be that God has a plan for dealing with evil, and that plan requires things to take a form much more like what we have than would be the case with a shorter period of evil in the world, with much less evil, manifesting itself in much less serious ways. If so, then we have a potential explanation for something more like the kinds of evil in the ways that it does appear. But could God have achieved these purposes without allowing it to be quite so bad? Could the lessons of the Holocaust have been learned without so many people dying or suffering? Could the world have learned what it needs to learn with one fewer instance of genocide? Could the recent tsunami in Asia have achieved whatever good it was supposed to have achieved without quite so many people?
Peter van Inwagen points out a problem with such an argument. The terms we use for evaluating a situation’s consequences are inherently vague. How much is good enough? How much evil is too much? Is there a sharp line between enough and not enough, as if one little bit of good or evil makes the difference? Most people do not think so. They treat concepts like that as vague in the same way that redness, baldness, or whether something counts as a pile of sand can be vague. One tiny degree of the frequency of light, one hair, or one grain of sand will not make the difference between something that is red and something that is not red, someone who is bald or someone who is not bald, or something that is a pile or something that is not a pile.
But if you keep taking hairs away, you end up eventually with a bald person. Even though one hair makes no difference to baldness, a person who is not bald does eventually become bald by losing enough hairs. How many is enough? It isn't some exact amount (at least on standard views of vagueness), and if I somehow had a moral obligation to remove enough hairs to make someone bald, it doesn't make sense to complain that I could have taken fewer off and still made the person bald. That will always be true unless you are in the vague region when it is unclear if you are bald, and once you're in that region you haven't made the person bald. If you want bald, you want clearly bald, and that means being able to add a hair and remain bald.
Similarly, one death or one instance of suffering does not make the difference in the moral status of a Holocaust or natural disaster. It certainly is true that whatever amount of suffering needs to occur can occur with one fewer death. But that does not mean that God would be obligated to prevent that one death, because that would lead to a ridiculous conclusion. Once you allow that, you would have to say God would have to prevent the next one, and the next one, and the next one. Since one death never makes the difference, you could keep going. But now we have a similar argument to the baldness one above. The fact that taking away one death would leave a good enough result does not mean a perfect being would have to do so. Maybe some amount of evil is too much, and God has to prevent that, but that does not mean that God is obligated to remove as much evil as possible. There is no exact such amount, since the very concepts involved are vague. It becomes an impossible requirement even for an omnipotent being.
Next: Question E