Personifying the problem of evil

Posted on 05/12/11 11 Comments

Things began on a sour note when Jerry Rivard accused me of holding a “morally reprehensible” view: “Randal, no offense, but I find this “we’re insignificant without God” perspective to be morally reprehensible….”

I find the charge Jerry presents especially troubling. Consider:

(1)   If Jones holds a racist view then Jones is a racist.

By parallel:

(2)   If Jones holds a morally reprehensible view then Jones is a moral reprobate.

Unfortunately the reasoning doesn’t break down if we change “Jones” to “Rauser” leaving me with the conclusion that Jerry opened his comments by effectively calling me a moral reprobate. Ouch.

But that’s okay. That’s what friends do. One calls the other a moral reprobate. However, we still live in a universe of an eye for an eye. So (and here’s the fun part), the reprobate gets to return fire by calling his buddy obtuse. Now I know what you’re thinking. “Isn’t this beneath you Randal? Trading pot shots?” But I actually have a reason for calling Jerry obtuse.

Let’s go back to what I originally wrote: “The Atheist Missionary was being driven by a deep moralistic impulse that somehow the intense suffering of the innocent is a fundamental offense to the basic structure of the universe.” Jerry responded:

“I do not find the suffering of the innocent to be an offense against the universe. I don’t see how it could be. The universe is not conscious. It has no intentions, no thoughts, no feelings, no values, no goals, no plans, no concerns. It doesn’t care if the boy eats the tiger or the tiger eats the boy. How can it be offended?”

Jerry, meet Personification. Personification, this is Jerry. Why don’t you two get to know one another? (Personification shyly sips her pint and blushes. Jerry twirls the umbrella in his girly drink and musters a shy “Hello.”)

I was attributing the language of “offense” to the universe as a way of communicating the notion that our objections to egregious suffering derive from an objective facticity which is, in its own (moral) domain, as real as a force like gravity is in its realm.

You might benefit at this point from Stephen Crane who made his own naturalism (and the accompanying existentialist dilemma) vivid with a bold dose of apostrophe:

A man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist!”

“However,” replied the universe,

“The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.”

I hope you wouldn’t attempt to rebut Mr. Crane with the retort, “But the universe can’t talk.”

So let’s be clear what we’re talking about here. The statement “Immolating a child for pleasure is wrong” is as much an objective brute fact as “2+2=4″. And any worldview that cannot ground the objective nature of facts like that has a real problem of evil on its hands.

(And yes, I know worldviews don’t really have hands.)

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  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    I am glad you are personifying the problem of evil because I don’t see how you can have evil without personification.

    Last night, I had the unique pleasure of dining with the artist who created the Holocaust Project: http://www.judychicago.com/image-gallery/holocaust-project She spent 8 years researching, interviewing, visiting concentrations camps/work sites and creating some of the most mind blowing images of human sufferering that you can imagine.

    I jumped at the opportunity to ask her about her perceptions of evil and she readily agreed that evil only exists through the actions of the people who perpetrate it.

    You say “immolating a child for pleasure is wrong” is just as much a brute fact as “2+2=4″.

    I agree that “immolating a child for pleasure” offends my evolved, learned and community imposed sense of what is right and wrong. If I was a sociopath, I would disagree. What do you rely on to say that the immolation is wrong? Just because your god says so?

  • Jerry Rivard

    Oh, now I get it! You’re not saying that the universe itself is offended, just that for something to be offensive, it must be offensive at a universal level. That if it’s not as definitively offensive as 2+2=4 is a definitive mathematical truth, then there is zero grounding for its moral status.

    Randal, meet Moderation. Moderation, this is Randal. Why don’t you two get to know each other? (Moderation steps into the center of the room, hand extended, while Randal paces the perimeter with folded arms.)

    Saying that someone holds a racist view does not mean that all of his views are racist. One could believe, for example, that one race is superior to another without believing that the races should be separated or that one race should be eliminated or enslaved. And one could believe that one race is superior to another in a specific, for example that blacks are generally better at sports than whites, without believing that race to be superior in every way. One could believe on a personal level that interracial marriage is wrong without also believing that interracial partners should be punished.

    Similarly, saying that someone holds a morally reprehensible view does not mean that all of that person’s views are morally reprehensible, or that the person himself is morally reprehensible. One could hold a view that I find morally reprehensible while not finding it so himself (hmmm… subjective morality) and be able to defend that view on its merits without taking offense at the disagreement.

    And saying that an act such as rape or infant sodomy is morally offensive does not mean that it must necessarily be morally offensive at a universal level. The suffering of the victim is quite sufficient to ground a statement like “immolating a child for pleasure is wrong” as objectively true.

    And finally, saying that Jerry knows how to use html tags doesn’t mean he doesn’t occasionally mess up Randal’s blog comments. Anyway, it’s good to know that we’re still friends, although for the record I’m an iced teetotaler, no umbrellas. And also for the record, you are clearly not a morally reprehensible person. You just play one in your blog sometimes. ;)

    Any interest in responding to the substance of what I wrote?

  • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

    Randal, I have to admit, I’m still confused on how if objective reality doesn’t exist without God, how adding God to the equation helps the situation any more.

    If objective morality exists independently of God, then God is unnecessary for objective morality. If morality exists because of God, through some decree or some creation of God, does that not make it subjective morality based on God’s thinking, rather than objective?

    I must be missing something. I’ve heard this kind of argument several times before, but I still can’t wrap my head around it, I suppose. What makes God’s morality objective rather than subjective, in such a way that morality is still somehow dependent on Him?

    • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

      “objective reality” = “objective morality”.

      A fun typo, but not the discussion I’m interested in having right now. :-)

  • Walter

    So let’s be clear what we’re talking about here. The statement “Immolating a child for pleasure is wrong” is as much an objective brute fact as “2+2=4?. And any worldview that cannot ground the objective nature of facts like that has a real problem of evil on its hands.

    How about a deity that is going to immolate for eternity a large portion of humanity for his own pleasure or glory? Would you say that we have a real problem of evil there?

    • randal

      I don’t accept the doctrine of eternal conscious torment.

  • AcesLucky

    “The statement “Immolating a child for pleasure is wrong” is as much an objective brute fact as “2+2=4.”

    … is a false statement, and knowingly so.

    One part of the statement deals with mathematically predefined quantities (objective), the other part of the statement deals with culturally defined emotions (subjective). One is not opinion based, the other is. One is not subject to change, the other is. One is not subject to feelings, the other one is. The comparison is more perpendicular than parallel.

    But let’s suppose for the moment that they are both factually objective as stated. If immolating a child for pleasure is “objectively” wrong, then how can it be right by virtue of simply changing WHO commits the crime?

    The TRUTH of 2+2=4 is not dependent on WHO is doing the addition; it is independent of it. Can the same be said for the acts of God?

  • afpierce

    “The statement “Immolating a child for pleasure is wrong” is as much an objective brute fact as “2+2=4.”

    … is a true statement as it is necessarily preceded by the implied statement, “In my opinion …”

    Unfortunately neither statements about the existence of God nor those attributing a particular morality to an act on his behalf can ever rise above that opening phrase.

    What follows that simple phrase separates Christian from Christian, Christian from Atheist and Christian from God.

  • AcesLucky

    afpierce writes:

    “The statement “Immolating a child for pleasure is wrong” is as much an objective brute fact as “2+2=4.”

    … is a true statement as it is necessarily preceded by the implied statement, “In my opinion …”
    —-

    Quite the contrary; it was stated not as opinion but objective fact, to wit: “And any worldview that cannot ground the OBJECTIVE NATURE OF FACTS LIKE THAT has a real problem of evil on its hands.”

    And besides: The statement is factually false whether implied or express. Adding, “in my opinion” doesn’t change that fact.

    If I say, “In my opinion, god is dead.” Does that make it necessarily true because it is of my opinion?

    Anyhow, the problem of evil persists only because some have defined God as necessarily benevolent. The O.T. god utterly destroys that concept and therein lies the cognitive dissonance.

    • afpierce

      The point I am trying to make is that the statement in question is in itself an opinion as is the rest of the paragraph that follows along behind it. There is a difference between a universally held and necessary construct (math) and moral perspective on good and evil: the two are apples and oranges.

      I cannot agree with Randal in principal on this matter simply because he constantly contends a higher morality that the (in context, supposed) Word of God and constantly seeks to re-evaluate and reinterpret it to fit his own view of right and wrong, good and evil. In this sense he is very much like Job.

      I think, based on previous posts, you and I would agree the morality of the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, taken as read in the Bible, is significantly different than that held by Randal. (I apologise Randal if this seems to be talking about you like you’re not in the room — I’m not trying to be rude)

  • AcesLucky

    “I think, based on previous posts, you and I would agree the morality of the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, taken as read in the Bible, is significantly different than that held by Randal.”

    Definitely agree!