Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Video games and the argument from evil

I'm going to begin by quoting most of a recent post by JD Walters. Let me begin by saying that, in my experience, JD is one of the three best contributors to the CADRE. He almost always has something thoughtful and worthwhile to say.

(I say “almost” due to his unaccountable lapse of judgment on global warmism. I find it hard to believe that anybody as astute as JD would buy into global warmism. But I don’t actually attribute that to JD. Rather, I attribute that to a body swap–when a wormhole, generated by temporal rift in the hyperspace continuum, momentarily channeled the consciousness of an alien being into JD's cerebral cortex. Thankfully, this was a temporary condition, with no lasting effects.)


I do think that video games can help clarify and reinforce one popular response to the problem of evil, which is normally called a 'free will' defense but which I think should be called the 'consistent consequences' defense, or something similar.

It goes something like this: in order for moral choice to be meaningful, the consequences of those choices have to be consistent and irreversible. If you attack someone with the intent of hurting them, that person has to get hurt. If you chose to lie to someone and you are found out, the embarrassment has to be real. Choices have consequences. This means that God cannot intervene every time human beings are ugly to other human beings. It is inherent in the concept of a moral universe that the consequences of one's choices be consistently upheld, however monstrous those consequences might be. On a (much) smaller scale I am aware of this reality as a teacher: if I want a smoothly functioning classroom environment, I must lay down the class's rules and procedures, as well as the consequences for disregarding them. If I doll out those consequences inconsistently, applying the full penalty to some while letting others off the hook, the students will rightly suspect me of hypocrisy and will not know what to expect in my class. This will encourage their inherent opportunism in testing boundaries (children and adolescents always try to see what they can get away with), and will inhibit their moral development.

Contrast this with playing a video game, in which most choices are completely reversible: if you go down a wrong path or make a move which results in the death of your character, or someone you are defending, you can simply restart the level. In many games, including my all-time favorite Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, you can choose whether to play the story as a good guy, accumulating wisdom and virtue as you go along, or a bad guy, deceiving others and acquiring demonic power as you go along. It doesn't matter which way you go, because you can always play the game again and make different choices. It's even fun to play the dark side, all the more so because you know people aren't really being hurt.

I submit that a world more like a video game than the real one, in which bad choices rarely if ever have lasting bad consequences, would not be a moral universe at all, and would not reflect the wisdom of a loving God. A world in which choices did not have consistent consequences would be a world unable to produce morally mature persons.

Of course these considerations do not address what may be at the heart of the problem of evil: why bad things happen to good people, or why people who make good choices often suffer, while those who make bad choices flourish...But I think they do go some way toward explaining why God doesn't intervene more in those cases when people make bad choices that result in the suffering of others.


http://christiancadre.blogspot.com/2010/06/video-games-and-problem-of-evil.html

There are a number of ostensible problems with this theodicy:

i) JD is apparently addressing the inductive argument from evil rather than the logical argument from evil. In that case,he assumes a higher burden of proof. It isn’t sufficient for him to show that his conjecture is logically possible or merely unfalsifiable. Rather, he must show that it is plausible.

ii) Even if we grant his contention that consequences, including monstrous consequences, must be respected if moral choice is to be meaningful, the value of a meaningful choice must also outweigh the cost of the consequence.

But why should Hitler’s capacity for moral development outweigh the cost to 6 million Jews (not to mention collateral damage)? Isn’t that a morally exorbitant price to pay for his moral potential?

Which is the worse-case scenario: inhibiting his capacity for moral development, or saving the lives of 6 million innocent victims?

Or we could take smaller-scale instances. Say a child predator deflowers a five-year-old girl and then buries her alive. Why should his capacity for moral maturity outweigh her wellbeing?

Likewise, suppose an elderly widow is dependent on her grown son to provide for her. One day, when her son is in the 7/11 to buy a six-pack, a robber enters the store, steals the loose cash, then murders the cashier as well as the customer. Why should his capacity for moral development trump the needs of the elderly widow?

iii) Perhaps JD would say that while the cost exceeds the benefit in many individual cases, the overall good of moral development counterbalances the exceptions.

But if that’s his response, then that raises additional questions:

iv) How does he measure the aggregate gain?

v) He is also assuming that:

a) Necessarily, there are no possible worlds in which morally meaningful choices are attainable apart from some evil consequences.

b) Necessarily, there are no possible worlds in which morally meaningful choices are attainable apart from some harmful consequences to a second party, rather than the agent.

c) Necessarily, there are no possible worlds in which morally meaningful choices are attainable apart from some “monstrous” consequences.

But it isn’t obvious to me how any one of these assumptions is intuitively plausible.

vi) Put another way, given that monstrous consequences, and harmful consequences to second parties, are necessary to moral development, then God cannot routinely intervene to preempt the consequences.

But why should we accept that assumption as a given? Why is it a given that morally meaningful choices necessarily include choices with monstrous consequences and/or harmful consequences for second parties?

Since not all moral choices have dire consequences, why is there no possible world containing only a subset of moral choices without dire consequences?

vii) Another evident tension in his theodicy is that the capacity of some agents for moral development incapacitates the moral development of other agents. Hence, the principle works at cross-purposes.

Take young girls who are sold into child prostitution. That consequence is hardly conducive to their moral maturation.

viii) Likewise, some choices are so catastrophic that once you make the fateful choice, you lose the opportunity of learning from your mistake.

ix) JD’s theodicy also treats moral evil as a necessary means of moral development. As if a human being is a blank slate who must commit both good and evil to learn the difference. Every child must torture a few puppies and kittens to learn that animal cruelty is wrong.

But if that is JD’s general position, then there’s no categorical distinction between the creation and the fall in his theological outlook.

x) I’m also unclear on where redemption fits into a scheme of “consistent consequences.” If the consequences of one’s choices must be “consistently upheld,” then what room is left over for divine mercy and forgiveness? It sounds like the inexorable law of karma. Rigid cause and effect.

xi) Even at a human level, it is sometimes incumbent on parents to jump in before their teenagers make a catastrophic choice. Likewise, we sometimes soften the consequences of a foolhardy choice. True, it would be counterproductive to do so all the time, but it would be equally counterproductive to allow every rash action to terminate in its self-destructive consequences. That’s like destroying the village to save the village.

Take a drug overdose. Do you let your child die, or do you seek medical intervention? “Tough luck, kid! Them’s the breaks!” How does it benefit the child to let him die? How does that advance his moral development?

Same thing with friendship. Doesn’t a friend sometimes interpose himself to prevent another friend from hurting himself by a reckless, impulsive choice?

xii) I’ll finish with a comment that I left on his post:

There's some truth to what you say. However, isn't this rather like one of those SF stories in which an advanced alien race kidnaps human beings and subjects them to brutal experiments to learn about the nature of compassion?

At the end of the experiment, the aliens are more empathetic to the plight of others. But does that justify the sacrifice of human test-subjects?

One could come up with similar scenarios. A rich parent wants to teach his young son compassion. He kidnaps street children to be experimental playmates for his son. At first his son abuses his playmates. Injures some, kills others. The rich parent disposes of the victims. But after a while the son learns the value of compassion.

6 comments:

  1. Similar arguments could be constructed for determinist theodicies, then. Suppose for full moral development one must experience evil; not only that, but it may be the only way God could have us learn the value of goods like mercy. So God determined to bring about these actions and events so his designed creatures could learn by means of the design plan.

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  2. Hi Steve,

    You raise a lot of good questions which I'm not prepared to answer at this point. I didn't mean to develop a full-fledged theodicy, I hadn't posted on the blog in a while and just wanted to 'warm up' again with a few thoughts that occurred. I do think that the good of moral choices being meaningful justifies allowing some horrendous consequences, but of course I also believe that in the end God will redeem all those evil consequences. He doesn't 'rewind' or let people go back to the beginning of the level. Bad things that people do cannot be undone. But going forward, he can redeem the evil, in ways we can only glimpse in a glass, darkly right now.

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  3. JD WALTERS SAID:

    "I do think that the good of moral choices being meaningful justifies allowing some horrendous consequences, but of course I also believe that in the end God will redeem all those evil consequences."

    Redeem for whom? For the injured party? For every injured party?

    You seem to be combining the freewill defense with a soul-building theodicy.

    Either separately or in combination, that type of theodicy generally presupposes the omnibenevolence of God. God acting in the best interests of everyone.

    On the other hand, the details of your argument involve some agents who morally evolve at the expense of others. In that event, you seem to ditch omnibenevolence for something more utilitarian.

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  4. "Redeem for whom? For the injured party? For every injured party?"

    Yes, I believe so, except perhaps those who end up completely rejecting God.

    "You seem to be combining the freewill defense with a soul-building theodicy."

    That's probably fair to say. God allows the consequences of our actions, but he coopts even the bad consequences to his good purposes. The textbook case, of course, is the story of Joseph. His brothers do a terrible thing to him, which God allows to happen, in order to bring Joseph to Egypt, to ultimately save Israel as well as the Egyptians from famine, and his brothers are morally reformed in the end. "You meant it for evil, but God used it for good"

    "Either separately or in combination, that type of theodicy generally presupposes the omnibenevolence of God. God acting in the best interests of everyone."

    Why do I get the feeling you don't necessarily think God is omnibenevolent?

    "On the other hand, the details of your argument involve some agents who morally evolve at the expense of others."

    Not at their ultimate expense. I think the problem with many theodicies is that they are not diachronic. Again, take the story of Joseph. If you just looked at the incident where Joseph is thrown down the well and gets sold into slavery, you would think that this is just a gross injustice and that God should have prevented it from happening. But look where Joseph ended up. It might seem that Joseph's brothers morally evolve at Joseph's expense, but he himself became prince of Egypt and saved Israel from perishing.

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  5. JD WALTERS SAID:

    "Why do I get the feeling you don't necessarily think God is omnibenevolent?"

    True. I believe that God is benevolent, but not omnibenevolent. Only a universalist could consistently maintain that God is omnibenevolent, and even then, he has an odd way of showing it.

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