Striving for Excellence in a World without Moral Evil


Lately I have been writing about the argument from evil against the existence God. This argument is meant to show that God’s existence is unlikely given the fact that we suffer at the hands of nature and our fellow creatures.

One reply to the problem of evil is to argue that acquaintance with suffering is necessary for various creaturely goods. For instance, perhaps suffering is needed for us to develop the deeply abiding virtues of character that God desires us to have. Or perhaps the testing of our character through a probationary period of suffering is necessary for us to finally consent to the heavenly nature which God desires to endow us with in the afterlife – i.e. a nature which is immutably good and therefore incapable of wrong. This kind of response to the problem of evil is often referred to as a “soul-making theodicy.” [Soul-making refers to character development and theodicy refers to the Greek term for ‘justification of God’.]

So far I have defended three claims related to the soul-making theodicy. First, God would prefer that character development occur within the context of real relationships instead of illusory ones. Second, good character is more valuable when it is actually confirmed in the face of suffering and temptation to do otherwise rather than just hypothetically confirmed. And third, some degree of soul-making is necessary for a person to be ready for heaven, even if they are in a right relationship with God through faith alone. In today’s post, I will consider yet another criticism of the soul-making response: a world without moral evil.

Soul-Making without Moral Evil?

According to this objection, neither moral evil (nor the temptation to do it) is necessary for soul-making. All that is needed is an inclination to do less than one’s best. Let me explain:

Consider a world in which I am “hard-wired” by God to fulfill all of my moral duties, yet I am free to go above and beyond my duties if I so choose. In this scenario, I am free to do less than my best by settling for the moral minimum, or I can resist the status quo by pursuing more saintly and heroic acts. For example, I might settle for being a good citizen by always paying my taxes; or I might strive to be a model citizen by dedicating substantial amounts of my time and energy to the care of strangers. Paying my taxes is a duty, and it comes easily to me because I am “hard-wired” to do it, but I can still fail to pursue a higher, more virtuous, life.

Now, if I can still develop virtues in a world without moral evil by striving for excellence and resisting the inclination to do less than my best, then why wouldn’t God prefer such a world over ours? If virtues can be had without any moral evils, then surely a good God would create that world instead.

As I see it, the theist can undercut this objection in at least two ways:

First, the objection ignores the fact that virtues formed by resisting the inclination to do less than one’s best are of inferior value to those developed in the face of real adversity, threat, and harm. The former are shallow virtues, because they are formed in a “toy world” without much struggle or cost involved. By contrast, the latter are deep and abiding virtues because they are formed by confronting real threats. So for these reasons, it is unclear that God would prefer shallow virtues over deep virtues.

Second, theists like Albert Haig have argued (I think more plausibly) that shallow soul-making is insufficient if God is to obtain our informed consent before endowing us in the afterlife with natures that are immutably and therefore irrevocably good. If Haig is correct, then a probationary period of acquaintance with moral evil is necessary for us to become sufficiently informed about the choice to become irrevocably good. And for those who think that God is not obliged to obtain our consent, Haig’s approach can be softened a bit to say that consent is preferable, if not obligatory.

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