Friday, July 19, 2019

Altruistic suffering

1. As I've said before, I think the problem of evil is miscast. The real problem of evil isn't human suffering in general but the suffering of God's people. That raises questions about divine benevolence because God makes promises to his people (Christians, OT Jews) that he doesn't make to humanity in general. Yet God often fails to protect his people from harm, which calls into question his benevolence towards his people, given some of his promises. 

2. Christianity has a fairly unique principle: altruistic suffering. To see how unique that is, just consider how shamelessly selfish many secular progressives are. For instance, one reason to have children is to share the gift of live with others. But many fertile couples refuse to have kids because kids are too much of a bother. Likewise, the resort to abortion or infanticide if pregnancy occurs. At the other end, involuntary euthanasia and involuntary organ harvesting. These aren't people you'd want to have as passengers on the proverbial lifeboat, with rations and drinking water in short supply.

3. The only thing remotely similar is is Mahayana charity. As I understand it, because Buddhism fosters emotional detachment to avoid personal suffering, that frees the Buddhist to be charitable without partiality. It's not that a Buddhist loves everyone. He can't love anyone, since he must practice emotional detachment. Yet he can treat everyone impartially because he has suppressed the normal bonds of affection. But of course, that's radically different from Christianity.

4. One way to frame the issue is whether God can fail to be benevolent to one Christian (at least in the short-term) for the sake of another Christian. Can he neglect some Christians for the sake of other Christians. And can he be neglectful without malice toward the Christians he neglects? 

5. Let's begin with a comparison. Suppose a widower has two sons–three and five years of age–as well as a bedridden father. Their country is overtaken by war. He makes arrangements to smuggle his two sons out of the country for their own protection. The grandfather is too enfeebled to make the journey, and the widower must stay behind to care for the bedridden father. So the two sons will be separated from their father–their only parent. That will be a great hardship, but at least they will have each other for companionship. 

When, however, the widower gets his sons to the rendezvous point, the smugger only has room to take one more passenger. So the father must choose between the them. Even though they are young, the older brother is noticeably tougher than the younger brother. The older brother can survive the separation, but he will be emotionally damaged by the separation. However, it would destroy the younger brother. He lacks the fortitude. 

The war rages on. Both brothers grow into teenagers. The father is killed in the war.

Although the older boy survives, the prolonged separation during his formative years leaves him profoundly alienated. Not just the separation but the sting of betrayal. He hates his father. He can't comprehend why his father chose the younger brother over him. He is consumed by bitterness.

Years later the brothers are reunited. The older brother can see for himself that the younger brother is psychologically fragile. In addition, their late father told the younger brother why he did it. The younger brother explains to his brother why their father did it.

Initially, the older brother is still resentful, both towards his kid brother and their late father. However, he comes to appreciate their father's dilemma. He comes to appreciate that if one of them had to suffer, it was better for the older brother, who's tougher, to suffer sacrificially for the sake of his kid brother. He can see that his kid brother would be unable to survive the hellish ordeal the older brother went through. 

He finally forgives his late father. And the two brothers, long separated, form a strong emotional bond. Nevertheless, the older brother has lingering trauma from the years of loneliness and sense of rejection. He suffers from depression. 

6. I use this to illustrate how, as a matter of principle, neglect is consistent with benevolence. Moreover, this isn't just a case of an agent letting it happen. Rather, the agent is deliberately neglectful. He acts in ways that are positively harmful. Yet there's an exculpatory reason for his neglectful behavior. 

7. Now let's consider two objections to my comparison:

Objection #1: You can make just about any position consistent by resort to ingenious, ad hoc, face-saving hypotheticals, but that's special pleading.

Response: I agree that if there was no evidence at all for God's benevolence toward his people, then the example would be special pleading. However, there's lots of evidence for God acting benevolently towards his people. Some Christians experience answered prayer, miracles, special guidance, special providences. 

The problem is the disparity of treatment. Why does God protect some Christians rather than others? Why does he fail to act in the best interests of every believer? 

Objection #2: The comparison is disanalogous. God isn't subject to the same dilemmas and limitations as humans. 

Response: It's true that in some respects, God has far greater freedom of action than we do. God has resources we can only dream of.

However, even an omnipotent, omniscient God–indeed, even a Calvinistic God–is subject to certain build-in limitations regarding his freedom of action. A particular timeline only allows for certain possibilities to be realized. God is juggling lots of balls. God must keep many balls in the air all at once. So it might not be feasible for God to be equally or consistently benevolent towards all his people. Some believers may have to suffer on behalf of other believers. The good of some believers necessarily comes at the expense of other believers. 

At the same time, eternity provides ample opportunities for emotional healing. Even if God didn't promote their well-being in this life, that's not the end of the story. That's not a complete frame of reference.  


  1. Through God's middle knowledge, He knows precisely what experiences each person requires to accept the Gospel / mature in preparation for service in this or the next life. If this involves suffering on our part (Romans 5:3-5), then we know that it is for our good (Romans 8:28) - DISCLAIMER, good is not as we might define it, and might not be revealed within this mortal life.

  2. i) Since I'm not a Molinist, I don't grant that God has middle knowledge–although God has counterfactual knowledge.

    ii) The point of my post is not about suffering that's good for soul-making virtues, but suffering for the benefit of others. Suffering that may be impede our sanctification.