On the air with moral anti-realism and the problem of evil

More than four years ago I wrote the ‘Moral anti-realism and the problem of evil’ post, primarily in response to claims that I had heard being made on the Stand to Reason radio show \ podcast. Since that time, I have kept the podcast in my rotation and have heard the same claim repeated over the years – namely, that skeptics (or moral anti-realists, to be precise) cannot legitimately raise the problem of evil because they do not have a foundation for the existence of evil. This last Tuesday, I finally got up the nerve to call in and discuss this with Greg Koukl. It went OK, but I also think I may have been too acquiescent, as I tried to keep the discussion congenial and focused on my question. In fact, I was so agreeable that he assumed that I agreed with his perspective throughout the full duration of the call!

Regardless, Greg did agree that it is legitimate for an anti-realist to raise the problem of evil on the grounds that it reveals an incoherence within the theist’s worldview (though he of course disagrees with that claim itself), and he also acknowledged that he is omitting this “nuance” when he says that anti-realists cannot raise the problem of evil. That said, I also don’t foresee that he’ll be routinely adding this point of clarity into his discourse any time soon – and I didn’t really give him reason to do so. There were several points that I could have pursued further, but didn’t:

  1. I think that he severely underestimates the degree to which presentations of the problem of evil are raising the problem as one of incoherence for the theistic position. In my experience, the central point of the objection is the issue of the incoherence – but I grant that it’s also possible that I’m the one who is misreading that, or that my experience is strongly biased toward arguments with “nuance”, as he puts it.
  2. Greg rejected any possibility of legitimately raising the problem of evil without this “nuance”. As I argued in that post four years ago, the availability of revealed Christian morality, and its overlap with our moral sense, means that the moral ontology of the person raising the problem of evil doesn’t matter – even if they are just pointing to their perception of evil in the world. If the gratuitous evil accords with the revealed Christian morality, then this is sufficient to claim that the theistic worldview appears to have a problem. I was ready to redirect the conversation in this direction the next time he gave me the floor, but then he said that the time was up and signed off. Note that I say “the theistic worldview appears to have a problem” because the theist can always propose that God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil.
  3. This view, that God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil, is the dominant view and is what Greg endorsed during the call. I agree that this is a possible reconciliation – and a barrier to the deductive problem of evil – but that is not the end of the discussion. Possible does not equal probable. In particular, this response does not eliminate the entailment that the actualized world is the best God could do. I would be interested to know whether he believes that our world actually is the best world attainable by God. As a proponent of the reformed tradition, I suspect he would. Regardless, when the issue is framed this way, the evidential problem becomes particularly stark because it is both easy to imagine ways in which God could have actualized better worlds, and difficult to comprehend that every single apparently gratuitous evil is actually necessary for some outweighing good. See my Pick Your Poison … post for a related argument.
  4. He completely disregarded the viability of subjective accounts of evil, implying that they are absurd and powerless. His contention that everybody knows that there’s evil in the world assumed that our moral intuitions in this regard necessarily include an overwhelming conviction of objectivity. I can speak from personal experience that this simply isn’t true, and I don’t understand why it is often implied that this should lead me to a cold, emotionless view of the world, or to withhold critique on the moral positions held by others – as I previously noted in my Moral Ontology post.
  5. He suggested that evolutionary accounts of morality fall flat because the mind is not physical, and because those accounts lack evidence for their claims. Though I disagree for numerous reasons (again, see my Moral Ontology post), I’m glad I didn’t try to offer any rejoinder to this at the moment. There just wasn’t room to open that can of worms and do it any justice, and I think it would have detracted from the original purpose of the call.

With all this in mind, I’m tempted to call back and use this engagement as a springboard for further conversation, but I am also interested to hear your reaction to the discussion. Take a listen to the show, where I come on at the 43:25 mark, and let me know what you think. If I were to call back, what do you think should be the focus of the discussion? It seems like point #3 could be a productive path toward understanding how he can be so often seem to be dismissive about the problem of evil, but I’m also intrigued by the possibility of opening with “when I said that I had encountered relativists who view morality as a product of evolution, I was talking about myself,” and then seeing where the conversation leads.


8 thoughts on “On the air with moral anti-realism and the problem of evil

  1. I totally agree with you on point #1. (And, after thinking about it for a couple minutes, on point #2 as well.)

    With regards to point #3 – whenever talk about the “best possible world” comes up I think it is important to point out another one of those “nuances”. Namely, there might not be just one scale of “goodness” for worlds: there may be many different and incommensurable ways of a world being good. So we can easily imagine ways in which our world can be better, but it is hard to say that our world could be better in every possible respect.

    (For an example, lets say E is the set of all people who receive eternal life in the actual world, and R is the set of all people existing in the actual world who do not receive eternal life. It may be that there is no other possible world where every individual in E is saved while no more people than in R are lost. If every human life has unique value to God – plausible, given God’s perfect love – then this provides one respect in which ours is the best possible world.)

    I like to recommend Alexander Pruss’ essay “Divine Creative Freedom” which expands on this idea. It’s available on his website: alexanderpruss.com

    No comment for now on #4 and #5. šŸ™‚

    • Hi Matt,
      Thanks for chiming in. I think I can appreciate how the notion of incommensurable values is important to philosophical discourse on the comparison of worlds, but in this context it also has to weigh heavily on our subjective intuitions about the relative status of the possible worlds we conceive. Much like the “morally sufficient reasons” response to the PoE, it may compel us to grant a possible condition which excludes the problem, while simultaneously having little impact on our sense of the overall probability that the problem is legit. At first blush, the inclusion of that consideration doesn’t move the needle much for me (though I acknowledge that it was not previously in my purview on this matter, so thank you for bringing it to my attention).

  2. Hi Travis,

    I agree with you that the problem of evil, even after all theistic attempts to explain it, is a compelling argument against the existence of a good God. I don’t think it proves God doesn’t exist, but I think it increases the probability. It does, as you say, create a problem or an incoherence for the theist.

    But I think the “problem of morality” creates an equal incoherence for the non-theist. So rather than the lack of a foundation for judging good and evil reducing the problem of evil for the theist, it creates an equal and opposite problem for the non-theist. The effect is the same.

    I think the problem of evil is a very deep and serious one. I don’t have to watch much news these days, or read much history, to feel in my guts the awfulness of suffering. It is certainly enough to lead me to give up my belief and my faith in God. But I cannot get out of my mind that there is not only the balancing moral argument, but also the more-than-balancing cosmological, fine-tuning, religious experience, documented miracles, free will & consciousness arguments, and the life of Jesus. I know you don’t assess these arguments in the same way I do, but they so far over-balance the ledger for me. That seems to me to be a more honest, and more effective way for the theist to meet the problem of evil and suffering.

    It also means that I don’t have to try to argue that this is the best of all possible worlds. It is hard for me to imagine that it is. Even granted that freedom – creating free choosing moral agents – is God’s greatest good, it is hard to believe that he couldn’t have achieved what he wanted there while curtailing suffering at least a little. I just have to leave it with the view that I can’t explain this, but the score is still something like 7-1 in favour of God, and I just have to live with the 1.


    • Hi Eric,
      By this point, I think I might have been able to write that comment for you. No surprises. I appreciate your candor and have no qualms with your methodology. Hope all is well with you and yours. Hopefully I can get myself publishing more than once every six months and we can share a few more interactions.

  3. Hi Travis
    I listened to the show a bit. I think you are far too steeped in the philosophy to expect much from calling in to a radio show to “ask a question.” I think if you really want to boil things down with christian thinkers it will have to be through discussion written or oral.

    One thing I find interesting is that you and I seem to be pretty rare birds in that we tend to listen to many people who disagree with us as much as agree with us.

    I pretty much agree with unkleE. But might change a few things around. I think the problems for morality are bigger than the problem of evil. But I do think certain types of evil are evidence of no God and so score points for the atheist position.

    As far as the radio host goes people have put together “valid” arguments against God based on the problem of evil. I don’t think they were “sound” but they were valid. And there is no reason that an argument needs to be a syllogism in order to be valid. A syllogism is a form of a valid argument but it is not the only form. I think Mackie was one atheist philosopher who spelled to problem out in a valid argument and he was a nihilist, so I am sure he had the nuanced view of the argument.

    I agree with many of your points and I reviewed your earlier posts you linked and think my views are similar to what I posted then.

    In the radio guys defense there are many atheists who claim they do not believe in evil but then they talk about how evil God the of the old testament is or the problem of evil. They do in fact seem unaware of this contradiction and it is worth pointing this out.

  4. BTW I found a link that discusses Mackie and Plantinga.


    Mackies formulation and Plantinga’s responses were something we covered in an introduction to philosophy of religion as an undergrad. It is pretty clear that Mackies argument is valid or at least with a few tweaks can be valid. Of course one of the things is that as you try to “tweak” an argument to make it valid then you tend to create more room to dispute the premises.

    BTW his concern of of “no valid syllogism” seems misplaced. It is not hard to create syllogisms.

    1) If the God described by Christians exists, then evil can not exist.
    2) Evil exists
    Conclusion: therefore the God described by Christians does not exist.

    So many atheists would say this argument is not only valid but it is also sound. The fact that many Christians (myself included) do not believe the first premise does not make the first premise false, and therefore does not effect the soundness of the argument. It just means the argument – while it may be sound – is not convincing to me. This is why I think enlightened people have to understand that most “proofs” are subjective in this way.

    On the other hand I happen to believe this argument is sound:

    1) If God does not exist, then we can not reliably understand what morality requires of us.
    2) We can reliably understand what morality requires of us.
    c: Therefore God exists.

    Now of course I would define the term “morality” as real morality. But that does not effect the validity as long as I mean the same thing in premise one as premise 2 – and I do. Now as I define it that way you might not believe premise 2 but your lack of believing premise 2 does not make p2 false – so it does not effect the soundness of the argument. It’s just that this argument won’t be convincing to you because you do not believe premise 2.

    BTW this is not to say logic is useless. I disagree entirely. I think logic is the most important tool set to learning truth and sorting out differences of opinion. It’s just that we have to understand what it does and what it doesn’t do.

    • Yeah, he got a bit more hung up on logical argumentation than I had intended, but that was my fault for using the word valid when I really meant it in a more colloquial sense, as in “legitimate” or “appropriate”. I prefer to deal in probabilities in nearly all cases, and I find that the use of deductive logic too often masks the uncertainty and variable subjective credence that should be taken into account.

What do you think?

Loading Disqus Comments ...