A More Specific Problem of Evil

In our previous post on the problem of evil we discussed a very generic form of the atheist’s argument and presented skeptical theism as a response. However there is a more specific argument from evil that has been designed to get around skeptical theism. Here it is:

  1. Some horror (where horror as such is merely a descriptive term) H obtains (premise)
  2. Our moral judgements are prima facie warranted in ordinary cases (e.g. a drowning child) (premise)
  3. I have moral judgements like “H ought not to have occurred” and “were one able to prevent H, one should do so” that are alike to or stronger than similar such judgements in ordinary cases (premise, introspection)
  4. Therefore, these judgements are prima facie warranted (by 2,3)
  5. These judgements being true is incompatible with H being non-gratuitous (premise)
  6. Therefore, my judgement that H is gratuitous is prima facie warranted (by 4,5)
  7. There exist no (or, weakly, I am aware of no) undefeated defeaters for this judgement of the gratuity of H (premise)
  8. Therefore, I know that H is gratuitous (by 6,7)
  9. If God exists, there is no gratuitous evil (and I know this) (premise)
  10. If God exists, gratuitous horrors are gratuitous evils (and I know this) (premise)
  11. Therefore, I know that God does not exist. (by 8,9,10

I do not know where this particular argument originated, I heard it from an atheist friend. It’s possible he is the source of it. It’s hard to deny the force of it, and it’s not obvious which premise the theist can deny.

The first route of attack here is premise 3. Consider the claim here, that we can make accurate moral judgements like “H ought not have occurred” and “One ought to prevent H”. I think the atheist here reaches too far. Suppose we have some Horror in mind, suppose it is a man drowning. Can I actually responsibly say “This man ought not have drowned”? Call this statement A. To say that is to say that “on the whole, all things considered, the world will be a better world if this man does not drown”. Call this statement B. If we are justified in statement A, we are also justified in statement B, since B is equivalent to A.

Is there any reason for us to think we can’t make judgements like B? I think there is. Recall this idea from our last post:

This argument begins by recalling that the data from which the strongest arguments from evil start are the profusion or seeming excess of evil in the world which, indeed, seems to be integrated into the fabric of nature and society. But for that very reason (their complexity and intricacy), any complex good whole of which these evils are a part would have to be exceedingly complex. Thus, he infers that it would not be surprising if it were beyond our ability to fathom.


The point here is obvious: it seems like we are not in a position to judge goods relating to whole worlds. Whole worlds are big, complex things, and goods and evils that relate to them must also be very complex. With a man drowning, we have no idea what kind of man he was. Or what kind of people his children will be. Of it he, by the process of tripping into the lake, steps on a butterfly which contained a newly mutated virus which otherwise would have wiped out the world. Or if the man himself was a believer in God and was ready to come home to Him, no longer experiencing the suffering of the world.

I don’t intend to present these as theodicies. I do not think that here I’ve uncovered the reasons why God might allow a horror to occur. All I want to do is point out our insufficient data, so that our judgement about the comparative goodness of two worlds are unjustified.

In fact, philosopher William Alston has come up with a list of cognitive limitations that humans are subject to, and calls this The Inventory. Here is The Inventory:

1. Lack of relevant data.

2. Complexity greater than we can handle.

3. Difficulty of determining what is metaphysically possible or necessary.

4. Ignorance of the full range of possibilities.

5. Ignorance of the full range of values.

6. Limits to our capacity to make well-considered value judgments.


Subject to these constraints, it seems quite reasonable to be sceptical of our ability to evaluate the moral value of total, all things considered, worlds.

At this point, the atheist might object “you’re not actually attacking premise 3. Premise 3 is merely about the existence of judgements, but you’re not arguing that those judgements don’t exist, you’re arguing that they’re unjustified”. So let me make the path a bit clearer.

I don’t think we really do make judgements like “world A is a better world than world B”. I don’t think we’re making all things considered comparative judgements about total worlds. I think if we introspect, we will realise that our normal, everyday moral judgements are not about total worlds. They’re about limited situations.

I don’t think I’m judging “the total moral value of the world would be higher, all things considered, if I save this man from drowning, so I should”. I think I judge things like “it would be better for this man if he were not to drown” or “a good human would save him and I want to be a good human”. And those latter kinds of judgements are perfectly compatible with the existence of God, and provide no similar basis for an argument against God.

I challenge anyone who does think they’re making judgements about total worlds to explain to me how they’re even fitting a whole world in their mind! How can you know enough about a whole world in order to morally evaluate it? I don’t think people are capable of this. So I do deny premise 3: I don’t think we actually are making that kind of moral judgement. So the argument fails there.

Now suppose that someone says to me that they really are making judgements about whole worlds, and even after I question this and poke at it a bit, they maintain that belief. Then I think we do move back to 2, and we do start questioning the value of those moral judgements.

The reason we start with 3 instead of 2 is that if we end up invalidating all human moral judgements, well, that would be a pretty bad outcome. If I have to end up saying “humans can’t ever know good from evil” in order to refute the problem of evil, I’ve admitted something pretty bad.

So I don’t want to undermine all human judgements of good and evil. But I will happily undermine judgements about total whole worlds. If the atheist admits their judgements are not about whole worlds, then premise 3 fails. I think that’s most likely. But if the atheist says their judgements are about whole worlds, then I think premise 2 fails for reasons we’ve already outlined.

Suppose that we do accept that our judgements are both justified and limited in scope, so they’re not about total, all things considered worlds. Then the theist can comfortably reject 5: if our judgements don’t inform us about what kinds of world God would or would not make, then those judgements clearly can’t be used as a piece of evidence against God.

So to summarise: in this argument, if our judgements are about total all things considered worlds, they are not justified. If they are justified, they are not about all things considered worlds. And if they are justified and not about all things considered world, then they are not incompatible with God.