Tuesday, July 25, 2017


I'm going to comment on this essay:

Trakakis, N.N. (2013) Antitheodicy, in The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil (eds J. P. McBrayer and D. Howard-Snyder), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Oxford, UK.ch25

Trakakis takes the same antitheodical position as David Bentley Hart:

Perhaps that's a reflection of the apophatic orientation in Eastern Orthodox theology.

What's interesting about this is how antitheodicy is the polar opposite of Calvinism. In Calvinism, everything happens for a particular reason. Every event makes a contribution to the whole. There's a blueprint for history, where each event is coordinated in a part/whole, means/ends relation. 

Even though most freewill theists believe in theodicy, there's a tension in their position, because they wish to avoid making God complicit in evil. Carried to a logical extreme, this results in the antitheodicy. 

Although he doesn't mention him, Berkouwer is a good illustration of this outlook. Early Berkouwer was a Reformed theologian, but he drifted. Late Berkouwer was a modernist theologian and antitheodicist. As I recall, Philip E. Hughes reacted in the same way. There are informative parallels between objections to Calvinism and objections to theodicy. The position of Trakakis et al. is a reductio ad absurdum of freewill theism. 

Essentially the problem resides with the “teleology of suffering” adopted by theodicists in their justifications of evil. In other words, theodicists invariably propose a teleological framework wherein suffering has some (God-given) point or purpose (a telos)

The teleological justification for evil is problematic for freewill theism because it implicates God in evil, in a way that freewill theism labors to avoid.  

Various moral criticisms can be leveled against such a teleological or instrumental understanding of evil. One such criticism concerns the category of unjustified or inexplicable evil. Is such evil so much as (logically or metaphysically) possible, on the theodicist’s view? The answer is clearly “no”, and this gives rise to the charge of “moral blindness”: theodicies turn a blind eye to what seems obvious and clear to everyone else – that it is at least possible, if not the sad truth of the matter, that there is much evil and suffering in our world that is gratuitous, pointless, or unnecessary with respect to the fulfillment of God’s purposes. One of the fundamental givens of our moral experience, it seems, is that there are evils that strike us as unredeemable, incomprehensible, and inexplicable – not in the (skeptical theist) sense that there are evils that may have some point that we cannot uncover, but rather that many evils are such that they have absolutely no point at all (see Chapter 29). (Colloquially put: “Life is not fair.”) Theodicy, therefore, amounts to the denial of morally surd realities which, as Kenneth Surin puts it, “halt the tongue, afflict the mind with blankness,”3 and which infuse us with the tragic sense of life where notions of “blame,” “responsibility,” and “explanation” are entirely out of place. (This is perhaps why theodicy flourishes in our blame-driven, litigious culture where playing the victim and looking for a scapegoat is commonplace.)

I can imagine, however, the theodicist replying: “Appearances are just that: appearances, not reality. So, although some evils appear gratuitous to us, this does not necessarily mean that they are in fact gratuitous. A good reason is required to support this inference from appearance to reality (this “noseeum inference,” as Stephen Wykstra calls it), and you have yet to produce such a reason.”

i) I disagree with Trakakis. There's nothing probative about people's superficial impressions. 

ii) Moreover, people are conflicted on this issue. On the one hand, some events appear to be pointless and unredeemable. On the other hand, people demand a moral justification for the occurrence of evil–which presumes that there is, or ought to be, a rationale for evil. So the appeal of Trakakis is selective and one-sided. 

iii) Furthermore, the Bible gives examples of events that initially seem to be chaotic, yet in hindsight the reader can seen an emerging pattern. 

The first thing to note about such a reply is that it is in effect making the Principle of Sufficient Reason – reformulated as the idea that there is a morally sufficient reason (or cause) for everything that happens (or that there is a theistic explanation for every fact) – the default position. But why should we make this our default position? In light of our moral experience, which (as even the theodicist admits) attests to the seeming gratuitousness of much evil, would it not be more reasonable to presume that there is in fact gratuitous evil unless we are given good reason to think otherwise? The onus, therefore, may be placed on the theodicist, who has the burden of showing that our initial presumptions are misleading.

i) At best, that makes some sense from the standpoint of atheism or deism. It makes little sense from the standpoint of Christian theism. A fundamental problem with the antitheodicy is why somebody who takes that position should continue to believe in God's wisdom and benevolence, or believe in God at all. That issue cannot be evaded. A Christian philosopher or theologian can hardly bypass that pressing question. 

ii) Moreover, something may appear to be pointless in the short-term, but purposeful in the long-term. That's something we can only assess in retrospect, as we see how the story plays out. How the story ends. To be in medias res is a poor vantage-point to assess the situation. 

iii) Goods and evils are causally intertwined. How can God have a causal or purposive role in the occurrence of good, but no causal or purposive role in the occurrence of evil–when evils generate goods and goods generate some evils? The dichotomy is metaphysically ad hoc. 

iv) If evil is pointless, yet human experience is riddled with evil, then doesn't that render much of human life meaningless? 

But the real problem with the theodicist’s reply is not one concerning argumentative strategies and burden-of-proof considerations. The more intractable problem, rather, lies with the consequences of denying gratuitous evil. First, if every evil is somehow connected to a greater good and we believe (or know) this to be so, then would we not be reduced to an attitude of passivity and fatalism in the face of evil and suffering? (see Chapter 30) Why should I fight against the devastating plague if I believe this to be, say, God’s just punishment of sin? Why would I fight against a genocidal regime if I held that only by giving humans the freedom to perform these kinds of terrible evils can God secure certain greater goods? Morality, and specifically our motivation to do what is right, would be undermined if we thought that there is no genuinely gratuitous evil.

i) I'm inclined to avoid a greater-good theodicy. I prefer to recast the issue in terms of second-order goods. Goods that are unobtainable apart from evil. Alternate goods. Incommensurable goods. No one possible world contains every good. 

ii) Trakakis overlooks the fact that overcoming evil may be one of the major goods which this set-up enables and encourages. Evil is not good in itself, but it can be a source of good. Overcoming evil is good. 

iii) Contrary to Trakakis, belief in gratuitous evil logically saps the incentive to combat evil. It makes one cynical. Why should I be that upset about evil if God is so indifferent to evil? Why should I be better than God? Minimally, I'd just do enough to protect myself and my loved ones. If, moreover, God is that indifferent to evil, then combating evil in general is futile. We're on our own, so the best we can hope for is to look out for ourselves. In a dog-eat-dog world, individual self-interest takes precedence. 

If we know that no evil is genuinely gratuitous, then when faced with a case of genocide, we would know that it will lead to a greater good whether we intervene or not, and so we are not morally obliged to help the victims. This, in other words, is to say that whatever goods transpire from our intervention in evil, there is no necessary (but only a contingent) connection between these goods and the evil in question.

i) Even on his own terms, there's a problem with his position, for not only is genocide a gratuitous evil, but intervention will spawn gratuitous evils. Attempting to prevent one gratuitous evil may generate another gratuitous evil. Since, on his view, many events are aimless and arbitrary, your well-meaning effort to halt or preempt evil may cause other random evils. 

ii) It's just a fact that action and inaction alike will likely have both good and bad long-range consequences. But since that's unforeseeable and uncontrollable, our duty is to act on the best information we have at the time. We leave the end-results in God's hands. 

iii) From a predestinarian perspective, when we intervene in some situations, we unwittingly carry out a plan that's wiser than ourselves. Same thing when we don't intervene in other situations. And it's not a choice between intervention or nonintervention in the same situation, for our actions are predestined. We end up doing precisely what God intended for us to do. And so we end up doing what is for the best–from God's viewpoint–regardless of our personal motivations.  

O’Connor responds (in O’Connor 1995, 385) by saying that there may be other things that we know that would make it our moral duty to help – as examples, he gives our knowledge that the victims would be happy and less miserable if we helped them than otherwise; our knowledge that a world in which we turn a blind eye to genocide is one that contains more evil overall than a world in which we intervene; and our knowledge that God wishes us to be morally virtuous people who act charitably and compassionately in circumstances such as those under consideration.

But I wonder how far such knowledge would go in providing strong moral motivation, the kind which would compel someone to lay down their life for their neighbor. For even though we would be naturally disposed to alleviate or end the harm someone is suffering, we would also know (in the theodicist’s world) that this suffering is connected (and necessarily connected, not merely contingently) to some greater good – and so to prevent the suffering is tantamount to preventing the greater good. This would at least seriously diminish the force of the reasons O’Connor thinks we would have for acting morally to help such victims. And a morality greatly diminished is not much better than a morality entirely undermined.

Trakakis overlooks the fact that intervention may be instrumental to the good, rather than counterproductive to the good. Intervention facilitates the good rather than circumventing the greater good.  

Lerner goes on to argue that even in cases of divinely ordained suffering or punishment, we may have a duty to interfere with God’s plans and to help the sufferer. 

That's confused. Human intervention wouldn't be interfering with God's plan; rather, that would be a planned intervention. God scripted human intervention into the original plot. 

That is why, I might add, the theodicist’s teleological framework of goods outweighing evils has been criticized for “not taking suffering seriously”: one cannot take horrific evil seriously if one refuses to acknowledge the very qualities that make such evil so repulsive and shocking.

Trakakis needs to turn that into an argument. 

Davis makes a similar point in a later paper, where he initially concedes that “the Holocaust of the World War II era was genuinely evil. The world would have been better – much better! – had it never occurred,” and then immediately after writes that “The Holocaust, like all other evils (so I believe), will be redeemed in the sense that some day it will no longer be a source of suffering (even in memory); it will fade away, pale into insignificance” (Davis 2004, 272, emphasis mine).

Actually, I think it's simplistic to say the world would be better had the Holocaust never occurred. It would be better in some respects, but worse in others. That's the necessary tradeoff between evil and second-order goods. 

Theodicies of this sort flout the Kantian imperative, even if it is further stipulated by the theodicist that the sufferer in the relevant cases is duly compensated by (e.g.) being granted a heavenly afterlife. And this is because the individuals in question (in this case, the infants) are treated as wholly expendable – their worth and dignity, their well-being and interests, are sacrificed for some greater good that bears no relation to them.8

It is for reasons such as this that a consensus has emerged among contemporary philosophers of religion that a theodicy, if it is to be morally adequate, must hold instead that God has the right to allow person A to suffer evil E for the sake of some greater good G only if G is something which A can share or experience. William Rowe (1986, 244) has expressed this view as follows:

Unless we are excessively utilitarian, it is reasonable to believe that the goods for the sake of which O [i.e., the theistic God] permits much intense human suffering are goods that either are or include good experiences of the humans that endure the suffering. I say this because we normally would not regard someone as morally justified in permitting intense, involuntary suffering on the part of another, if that other were not to figure significantly in the good for which that suffering was necessary.

If you think this is incorrect and that compensation is sufficient, then the morally counterintuitive result that follows is that God could deliberately inflict serious harm on someone for the sake of some good shared only by others, and yet God, simply by granting the sufferer a heavenly afterlife as compensation, has done all that is required to treat that person with the kind of basic dignity and respect that is consistent with treating them as an end-in-themselves.

To treat an individual as an end-in-themselves is to respect and protect their interests and well- being at all times and at all costs – and this means that the dignity and worth of a person cannot simply be sacrificed or traded off for the sake of some greater good (the “system,” the Cause, God’s master plan, etc.).

For in that case, the individual’s suffering is merely useful, but not necessary, for bringing about the greater good, and so the individual becomes an expendable pawn in a system with goals and purposes larger than and alien to those he has chosen for himself. 

i) But he gives no reason to accept the Kantian imperative. And it's simplistic. For one thing, it fails to distinguish between innocence and guilty. Even if it's wrong to treat an innocent person as an expendable pawn, it doesn't follow that it's wrong to treat an evil person as an expendable pawn. Moral agents can forfeit the "dignity" to which they are prima facie entitled. Once they cross that line, there's nothing necessarily wrong with trading them off for the good of others. It is amoral for Trakakis to isolate human dignity from the moral character of the agents in question. Why not sacrifice an evil agent for the sake of the innocent? Take a security guard who kills a schoolyard sniper to protect the kids. The Kantian imperative sounds inspirational so long as you leave it conveniently abstract. But concrete illustrations expose the moral vacuity and fatuity of the principle. 

ii) Of course, that doesn't address the case of babies, but that's where eschatological compensations can be germane. He's dismissive of eschatological compensations, but that's due to his amoral absolutization of human "dignity". 

iii) I'd also add that in the case of those who die young, we never see how they'd turned out if they had a normal lifespan. But if we were privy to that counterfactual retrospective insight, we might view their fate very differently. Sometimes premature death is for the best. Once again, that's the difference between a God's-eye viewpoint and human shortsightedness. 

The greater good in this case is human happiness, and we are asked to imagine that this is a good that could only be achieved through the torture and death of a child. Let us assume also, in line with SCR, that the greater good of human happiness is one that even the child who has been victimized will partake of (even though Ivan himself does not explicitly make this concession). Nevertheless, this remains a cheap-and-easy way of treating the humanity of persons. Even if the child is compensated in this way for its suffering, we would continue to doubt that the architect of this system is really seeing the child as an end-in-themselves, as a human being whose humanity has an unconditional and absolute worth and sanctity. I gather that we would, instead, respond in disgust and revulsion at the way the child is being viewed and treated. This is why Alyosha, a devout monk, answers Ivan’s invitation by refusing “to be the architect on those conditions.”

Put somewhat differently, the problem lies with the very way in which the objector (like Ivan) sets up his imaginary scenario in terms of a dilemma: either the child suffers and everyone is saved, or the child does not suffer and no one is saved. When Alyosha answers with a “No,” he is rejecting the entire setup that Ivan has constructed. Similarly, the objector’s dilemma should be rejected as a false one – and it is false because it already assumes what is being contested, namely, the teleological framework wherein God permits or inflicts evils for the sake of greater goods.

It's easy to dream up intractable moral dilemmas where we are at a loss. Hypothetical scenarios that leave us stumped. But it's not our responsibility to answer all those imponderables or act on those artificial predicaments. We can opt-out. Go on strike. It's up to God to make some determinations. That's not our call, one way or the other. 

Relevant here is the customary distinction between the “theoretical problem of evil” and the “practical problem of evil,” where the theoretical problem is the intellectual matter of determining the rationality or truth of theistic belief in the light of the facts about evil, while the practical problem concerns the existential and experiential difficulties evil creates for love and trust toward God (or the difficulties in combating evil and alleviating suffering). Theodicists tend to uphold a distinction of this sort, and they typically see themselves as addressing the theoretical problem of evil only – the practical problem is regarded as the business of priests and social workers.

Emotion clouds judgment. Moral clarity requires intellectual clarity. Critical detachment or critical sympathy are necessary to properly assess some claims. To adopt the viewpoint of the position under review to assess it on its own grounds. 

Another consequence of denying gratuitous evil is that this inevitably leads to the denial of evil per se. This is perhaps most obvious when theodicists say (in imitation of Romans 8:18; cf. 2 Corinthians 4:17) that the sufferings experienced now are trivial in comparison with the glorification to be experienced in heaven, or when they say that whatever sufferings we undergo in this life will be more than compensated for (or “outweighed”, or “defeated”) in the afterlife. When such things are said – and unfortunately such things are often said blithely and casually without much thought having gone into exactly what is being proposed and implied – a subtle but definite shift in moral perspective is taking place. This is a shift so significant that the very reality or at least the horror of much evil comes under doubt.

i) Is Trakakis rejecting Rom 8:18 and 2 Cor 4:17? 

ii) Hope is the basic way people survive horrendous evils. The hope that this will end. They will put it behind them. If they tough it out, the future will be better than the present. Does Trakakis reject that?

iii) He fails to explain how belief that evil can be offset by good leads to the denial of evil per se. He asserts that, but all we get his vague, inarticulate intuition. He gestures at what he feels is wrong with that perspective, but he fails to explicate what, precisely, makes that the case. 

Then any such hard-and-fast demarcation between the theoretical and practical problems of evil will seem dubious and artificial. 

True, but a clear-thinking theodicy can be of pastoral value. People who suffer want reasons. 

Consider, for example, the view (commonly upheld by anthropomorphites) that God shares a moral community with us – which is to say that God’s morality is essentially the same as our morality, and so there are moral principles that are universally applicable, that is, applicable to both human beings and any divine beings there are. But let us suppose that the assumption that God shares a moral community with us is false. Various reasons may be given for rejecting this assumption. One may defer, for example, to the doctrine of divine simplicity, according to which God has no parts or composition, and so is absolutely simple. On this view, God is not so much as good but goodness itself, or the standard of goodness. But in that case, there are no moral standards independent of God that could be relied upon to pass judgment on God, as the theodicist is wont to do. Alternatively, one may argue that God’s goodness is metaphysical and not moral in nature – in which case, once more, God is not subject to moral evaluation or criticism (see Davies 2004, 226–230). As this indicates, the theodical project can be undermined not merely by exposing its moral failings, but also – and possibly more potently – by questioning its theological foundations.

i) Isn't his explanation a theodicy?

ii) In Scripture, there's a sense in which God is subject to moral evaluation. But he's not subject to humanistic moral evaluation. The God of biblical theism is a God who invites his people to judge him according to his fidelity to his promises. 

iii) Trakakis has erected a false dichotomy. It's not a choice between God's morality coinciding with human morality or God's morality having nothing in common with human morality. There can be some universally applicable overlapping points of contact.

iv) His alternative seems to imply that God is so alien as to be beyond good and evil. He could do anything to human beings, and it wouldn't be evil. His antitheodicy devolves into theological nihilism. 

The foregoing, however, are only some objections that could be made against theodicy. Other problems, worthy of further exploration, include the difficulty theodicies have in allowing for – and indeed emphasizing the importance of – certain reactive attitudes in the face of great suffering. When undergoing or witnessing a particularly heinous instance of evil or injustice, we assume we have the “right to grieve,” to be sad and disappointed, if not also to be angry and raised to revolt and indignation, even to be angry and cry out against God. But protesting against evil in this way seems to be ruled out in advance by theodicy. For in holding that everything is permitted or ordained by God for a good reason, theodicy recasts reactions such as grief and protest as (at best) natural but short-sighted or (at worst) sinful and blasphemous.

Humans can have feelings that are appropriate to their humanity. We are creatures. Since God isn't human, there's no inherent tension when there's a discrepancy between divine providence and our "reactive attitudes". Providence can be wise and just even if it rubs us the wrong way. It still hurts. 

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