Monday, July 24, 2017

Machine Gun Preacher

I'm going to comment on this essay:

Oppy, G. (2013) Rowe's Evidential Arguments from Evil, in The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil (eds J. P. McBrayer and D. Howard-Snyder), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Oxford, UK, ch4.

Oppy's argument centers on this real life example:

The girl’s mother was living with her boyfriend, another man who was unemployed, her two children, and her 9 ­month old infant fathered by the boyfriend. On new Year’s Eve all three adults were drinking at a bar near the woman’s home. The boyfriend had been taking drugs and drinking heavily. He was asked to leave the bar at 8:00 p.m. After several reappearances he finally stayed away for good at about 9:30 p.m. The woman and the unemployed man remained at the bar until 2:00 a.m. at which time the woman went home and the man to a party at a neighbour’s home. Perhaps out of jealousy, the boyfriend attacked the woman when she walked into the house. Her brother was there and broke up the fight by hitting the boy­ friend who was passed out and slumped over a table when the brother left. later the boyfriend attacked the woman again, and this time she knocked him unconscious. After checking the children, she went to bed. later, the woman’s 5­ year old girl went downstairs to go to the bathroom. The unemployed man returned from the party at 3:45 a.m. and found the 5­-year-old dead. She had been raped, severely beaten over most of her body and strangled to death by the boyfriend. (Russell 1989, 123, drawing on a report from the Detroit Free Press, January 3, 1986)

Before delving into the details, I'd like to make some general observations:

i) Cases like this pose a psychological dilemma for Christian philosophers and apologists. A clinically detached philosophical response seems to be heartless. Yet that's the nature of philosophical analysis. It requires critical detachment. If you're going to throw these examples at Christians, don't turn around and blame us for presenting an unemotional analysis of a heart-wrenching case. 

ii) In addition, they pose a prima facie dilemma. To present a justification of divine permission might seem to justify the evil itself. Yet condoning divine permission is not condoning the permitted evil. 

However, atheism has a corollary dilemma. Atheism must say these things happen for no good reason. Tough luck, kid! That's the kind of world we live in. Deal with it!

iii) A male philosopher or apologist is at a disadvantage when discussing female victims of horrendous crimes. Where the perp is male and the victim is female, it looks bad when a male philosopher or apologist presents a theodicy. It would be better for male philosophers and apologists to substitute male-on-male examples, and female philosophers or apologist to use female examples. 

iv) Although Oppy's example is appalling, and intentionally so, it doesn't budge me an inch towards atheism. In a godless universe, human life is worthless. The alternative to Christian theism is moral and existential nihilism. Whatever the difficulties posed by the problem of evil, atheism is hardly the answer. Indeed, atheism is evil. 

If there is to be a justification for the suffering of the five­-year-­old girl, that justification surely must be in terms of goods for her.

As I noted earlier, if there were to be a justification for the permission, by an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good god, of the rape, torture, and murder of five­-year-old girls (if there were an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good god), that justification would surely have to be in terms of goods for the five­-year-­old girls in question.

Unfortunately, Oppy never bothers to explain why any justification must be in terms of goods for the victim. Is that a general principle? Or does Oppy have other, unstated caveats in mind, such as the innocence of the victim? 

For instance, suppose Pol Pot was brutally murdered when he was five years old. Would justification for divine permission have to be in terms of goods for little Pol Pot? I'm not directly comparing the little girl to Pol Pot. I'm just probing Oppy's rationale. Is this meant to be a sufficient, universal principle–or does it require other qualifications for the argument to go through?

However, if squaring Theism with the distribution of intense suffering in our universe is taken to require the postulation of an afterlife in which there is compensation for that intense suffering, or the postulation of fallen angels who inflict that intense suffering upon us, or the postulation of goods beyond our ken that provide justification for permission of the distribution of intense suffering in our universe by an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good god, or the like, then, the distribution of intense suffering in our universe does turn out to favor naturalism over Theism, since this increase in the theoretical commitments of Theism merely adds to the initial advantage that naturalism has over Theism on account of theoretical commitments.

It's unclear why Oppy is so dismissive regarding the relevance of eschatological compensations. He's appealing to simplicity. But if eschatological compensations are required for a moral universe, then that's a necessary increase in theoretical commitments. An amoral universe may be ontologically simpler, but that has no category for moral evils. 

Yes, we have come to recognize that slavery is intrinsically wrong, and that homosexuality is not intrinsically wrong, and so forth

Does this mean Oppy's argument is predicated on moral realism? If so, the onus is on him to explain how naturalism can underwrite moral realism. 

I think that nothing could justify rape, torture, and murder of five­-year-­old girls; and I think that nothing could justify inaction in the face of rape, torture, and murder of five-year-old girls other than inability (on grounds of lack of power, or knowledge, or the like).

i) He's bundled two distinct propositions into one claim, but how does the proposition that nothing could justify rape, torture, and murder of five­-year-­old girls entail the additional proposition that nothing could justify inaction in the face of rape, torture, and murder of five­-year-­old girls other than inability (on grounds of lack of power, or knowledge, or the like)? Or is that meant to be an entailment relation? How are those two propositions logically related? Clearly he thinks they are inseparable in some sense. 

ii) On the face of it, it's hard to take him seriously. There are many hotspots around the world where child abuse is rampant. But Oppy isn't jetting around the globe to protect kids from rape, torture, and murder. There are many opportunities for him to do so. Take the movie Machine Gun Preacher, based on a true story:

If Oppy really believes that inaction is unjustifiable in the face of horrendous crimes against children, why does he sit behind the safety of his laptop? 

iii) Suppose I take the position that the action of the machine-gun preacher was admirable. This doesn't imply that I think it's obligatory for everyone who's able to intervene in the same way. We have a variety of social duties which must be counterbalanced against each other. 

Oppy might object that God doesn't have the same limitations. However, much of his argument is predicated on his presumptive analogy between what's permissible for man and what's permissible for God. 

Howard ­Snyder says: “Given that intervention and non­intervention have massive and inscrutable causal ramifications, and given that the unforeseeable consequences swamp the foreseeable ones, we have just as much reason to believe that the total consequences of non­intervention outweigh the total consequences of intervention as we have to believe that the total consequences of intervention outweigh the total consequences of non­intervention. Thus, we should be in doubt about whether we should intervene” (Howard ­Snyder 2009, 38)

Synder makes a very important point, although it seems to jumble together considerations that need to be sorted out:

i) Divine intervention to prevent evil has massive, causal ramifications. 

ii) These are divinely foreseeable (unless Snyder is an open theist), but humanly unforeseeable. Therefore, it's reasonable for Christians to make allowance for the fact that God may very well have good reason not to intervene more often, for reasons inscrutable to shortsighted humans.

iii) But by the same token, because human agents are necessarily shortsighted, we don't have the same responsibility to take unforeseeable consequences into account. For that matter, both action and inaction have unforeseeable consequences. Our duty is to act on the best available information. 

As Howard ­Snyder (2009, 43f.) observes, Theists may well suppose, for example, that God has instructed humankind to prevent suffering in general, and that God permits a lot of it precisely because he intends for us to try to prevent it. (So, somehow, I would not stand between the five­ year ­old girl and her deepest union with God were I to intervene to prevent her rape, torture, and murder.)

There are situations where, if I had foreknowledge or counterfactual knowledge, I might refrain from intervention if my action, while beneficial in the short-term, did greater harm in the long-term. 

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