Friday, December 29, 2017

Causing evil

A stock objection to Calvinism goes something like this: it is evil to cause evil. But the God of Calvinism causes evil (or determines evil, which amounts to the same thing). Indeed, the God of Calvinism causes human agents to commit evil. Yet making someone else do evil is at least as bad if not worse than doing it yourself.

Let's examine that objection. Take the ticking timebomb scenario. Many people think torturing a terrorist to find out where the bomb is hidden, to save innocent lives, is immoral. 

Why is that immoral? Presumably, they think torture is wrong because they think excruciating pain is evil. If so, then it's evil to cause excruciating pain. 

If they don't think excruciating pain is evil, then it's unclear why they think torture is wrong. They might not think that's the only reason torture is wrong. They might think torture is wrong in part because coercion is wrong. But presumably they think the evil of excruciating pain is a necessary condition of what makes torture wrong, in cases where torture utilizes pain. Indeed, pain is coercive. The two are inseparable in that scenario. 

The justification for torturing the terrorist is to save innocent lives. But since they regard torture as intrinsically wrong, the goal, however noble, can't justify that expedient. So goes the argument. 

But let's vary the illustration. Take a field medic during the Civil War who operates without anesthetic, because none is available. If excruciating pain is evil, then it's evil for the medic to inflict excruciating pain on his patients. Yet most of us think his action is justified. He must amputate the arms and legs of gunshot victims to prevent the greater evil of death by gangrene. Yet in that event, there are situations in which causing evil isn't evil. 

In addition, suppose there's a patient he's loathe to save. It may be the enemy. But the field commander orders him to operate on that patient because the field commander wants to pump the enemy soldier for information. He may force the unwilling medic to operate at gunpoint if need be.

That would mean he's causing an agent to commit evil, assuming that pain is evil. If, on the other hand, we grant that it's not inherently evil to cause the evil of inflicting pain, then it's not evil to cause an agent to cause evil, in that respect. At least, that seems to break the chain of inference.

Although that's a hypothetical comparison, it has a real-world counterpart. We experience physical pain because God designed the human body to have that sensitivity. But if excruciating pain is evil, then that means God causes evil by designing and making bodies with sensitivity. 

Let's consider some objections to my argument:

i) Pain isn't good or bad in itself. Rather, it's context-dependent. For instance, pain can be a warning sign to avert or avoid greater harm. The painful sensation of burning deters us from taking chances with fire. Temporary pain protects us from greater harm. 

One potential problem with that reply is that it makes it harder to oppose torture in the ticking timebomb scenario. In both cases, you have an ends-means justification. If the deterrent value of pain to avoid death or serious injury by fire justifies pain, then why not torturing a terrorist to save innocent lives? Both utilize temporary pain. Both justify harm for a greater good. 

ii) We absolve the field medic because he lacked access to anesthetics. But the analogy breaks down in application to God, who doesn't suffer from analogous limitations.

Up to a point that's true, but I'm testing the principle. The objection makes blanket statement: it is evil to cause evil. Or it is evil to cause another agent to cause evil.

If, however, there are exceptions, then that isn't wrong in principle. It depends on the situation. If something is intrinsically wrong, that precludes exceptions. But if in fact it's permissible in some cases, then the objection can't be a special case of a universal principle. 

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