Do philosophers make the problem of evil worse?

The problem of how an all-good, all-powerful God can co-exist with evil is probably the most formidable barrier to faith that I can think of. When I listen to the sobering stories of people who have endured so much apparently pointless suffering in their lives, I can’t help asking myself, “If I were in their shoes, would I believe in God?”On the one hand, there are those who favor intellectual responses to the problem of evil. I think their approach has some merit in clarifying to what degree evidence from evil may count against the existence of God, but I am wary of slick philosophical answers that turn this problem into an academic game of chess.

On the other hand, there are those who are offended by the suggestion that evil can be approached intellectually and then conveniently explained away. The trite answers spouted off by certain well-meaning religious theists only serve to reinforce the suspicion that their view fails to take evil seriously. To some extent, I believe this suspicion of intellectual approaches is warranted. By approaching the problem in this way, are we not in danger of reducing evil to something impersonal and trivial? Don’t philosophers make the problem even worse by treating evil like an object to be analyzed and scrutinized? What are your thoughts?

3 thoughts on “Do philosophers make the problem of evil worse?”

  1. I have to say that I’m probably with those who are wary of intellectual arguments as a way of dealing with evil and suffering. That approach seems to me like a way of buffering yourself against pain, and if we buffer ourselves against the pain, we’re changing the thing we’re interacting with. Does that make sense? It distorts the interaction with the thing we claim to be interacting with.

    I feel like you and I have been questioning these things since university, and in most ways I feel no closer to understanding or feeling at peace with any of it than I ever have. But I also believe that I will never really come to peace with any of it, which is maybe a bit different from how I was in university, when I thought I’d eventually understand, if I just read the right books, or talked to the right person.

  2. This is such a fascinating topic Thomas. I don’t know the philosophy behind it, but am more familiar with the psychology of it.
    I think that when we call something “evil” we “other” it; we render it outside our experience and understanding. My experience is that all people make sense; developmental psychology seems to support me. The saying “hurt people hurt people” the applies. But many people object, “just cause someone got hurt doesn’t mean it’s OK for them to hurt me”– that’s right it doesn’t, but it does explain it. The issue of moral judgment and explanation are independent but often get confused. This is because of the “explaining-condoning effect” whereby when we can explain some wrong-doing, we also are then found to be more compassionate towards the perp. So, evil is then something that we don’t want to undestand or allow an explanation for. When people are hurt, they wonder “why?” but maybe they mean, “why me?”.
    One of the important things I think for humanity to remember about evil is that if we “other” some one or act by calling it evil, we can no longer learn from it. It may feel good to push it so far away from ourselves, but unfortunately, we are no longer able to see how to prevent it in the future.
    A great example of this is research on the Holocaust. We can call Hitler evil and leave it at that– feels good to “other” him and be done with it. . . or maybe its not so simple. There was a lot of anti-semitism in that era, maybe we all have some responsibility, which means we can prevent it in the future by understanding why we were vulnerable to allowing it to happen.

    it’s worth coming back to the “why me” question. when people are struggling with evil, they don’t want an intellectual answer, because they need emotionally to know they are still worthy of being loved. They’re wondering “do I deserve the hurts?” or “did God cause me to be hurt?” We need to love others so they can courageously answer, NO!

  3. Interesting comment Jon,

    If I understand you correctly, you are saying that it is counterproductive to dismiss explanations of others’ hurtful actions toward us (whether for reasons of it slipping into “condoning,” or otherwise) because it prevents us from learning from those actions.

    Your comment gets to the heart of deep questions in the philosophy of explanation. In my view, human behavior can be explained on multiple (complementary) levels. It can be explained in terms of brain chemistry, genetics, psychology, systemic power relations, and (sometimes) in terms of choice/agency. I’ve probably missed some, but you get the idea of the hierarchy.

    Now the assumption behind the “explaining-condoning” inference is that explanations of behavior on “lower” levels seem to negate explanations on “upper” levels in such a way that once we have, say, a psychological explanation of a hurtful action, it ceases to be an action for which an agent has reasons to perform and is therefore responsible for. I guess my beef with that inference is that multiple levels of explanation need not compete with each other. Each explanation is valid and useful but none of them is fully adequate on its own.

    Anyway, I doubt that a foray into the philosophy would be of any help to a client sitting on your leather couch! But you’ve touched on a crucial point that when people ask “why”, they usually are not asking an academic question. They are usually asking a very person, emotional question. They are probably asking “how am I going to get through this?” Or “what’s the way forward?”

    Regardless, I want to hold onto the term “evil” as a useful category even if, as you rightly suggest, people often use that category to distance themselves from understanding. From a therapeutic standpoint, I suppose the emphasis is best placed on using terminology that helps the client. What do you suggest as a way forward here?

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