Thursday, January 09, 2020

A sufferer-centered theodicy

In his chapter, Erik Wielenberg argues that life in a Christian universe is absurd, in that it would be impossible for most humans to be happy if they understood and accepted its entailments. He thinks Christianity makes life absurd because it entails what I elsewhere (2017) called a “strong sufferer-centered requirement on theodicy,” i.e., it entails that God would not allow an undeserved, involuntarily undergone evil to befall someone unless it ultimately benefited them. Since any (undeserved, etc.) evil will benefit its sufferer, this gives us a reason to inflict suffering on others, which Wielenberg expects to have devastating psychological consequences. As he formalizes the argument:

1. Necessarily, if God exists, then whenever a person P experiences undeserved
involuntary suffering, P is better off overall than P would have
been without the suffering.
2. So: Necessarily, if God exists, then whenever a person A causes another
person B to experience undeserved involuntary suffering, B is better off
overall than B would have been without the suffering (from 1).
3. God’s existence makes it true (or would make it true) that each of us is
morally obligated to pursue the good of others.
4. Necessarily, if (i) A is morally obligated to pursue B’s good and (ii) A’s
performing act X would make B better off overall, then (iii) A has a fact relative
reason to perform X.
5. So, God’s existence makes it true (or would make it true) that C: each of
us has a fact-relative reason to cause others to experience undeserved
involuntary suffering (from 2, 3 and 4)
6. Most human beings are such that if they were to accept (C), they would
experience negative psychological consequences that would make it difficult
or impossible for them to be happy (without also failing to accept
at least one entailment of (C)).
7. Therefore, the claim that God exists makes life absurd (from 5 and 6).

Wielenberg is a leading atheist philosopher. So what are we to make of the argument?

1. There's some moral ambiguity in referring to undeserved suffering. Suppose a drug lord hires a hit man. The hit man has a fling with the drug lord's daughter, but the affair sours and she falsely accuses him of rape. The drug lord tortures the hit man to death. In a sense, that's undeserved suffering inasmuch as the hit man is innocent of the allegation. But it hardly follows that divine justice requires that to accrue to the ultimate benefit of the "wronged" hit man. Of course, that's not the kind of example Wielenberg has in mind, but it shows that as a matter of principle, his assumption fails since he overgeneralized.

2. There's a difference between claiming the innocent suffer should ultimately benefit from what he endured and claiming he should be compensated for what he endured. Suppose someone innocently suffers for the benefit of another, but is compensated for his suffering. He may not be better off for what he suffered. Indeed, he may be worse off for what he suffered. The individual on whose behalf he suffered is better off. And the innocent sufferer is compensated. But that doesn't mean it was for his benefit or that he's better off overall than before. 

3. Finally, there's nothing good about suffering for the sake of suffering. Redemptive suffering is not interchangeable with gratuitous suffering. The experience of unjust suffering is not, in itself, beneficial to anyone. That's only the case if evil operates within a teleological framework. At best, Wielenberg's argument only goes through in a world where God allows gratuitous evil, which he must then redirect for the ultimate or overall benefit of the innocent sufferers. 

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