Mackie’s Analysis of the Problem of Evil

In this marvelous and beautifully argued paper Mackie gives an excellent presentation of the soul-making solution to the problem of evil. Of course, he is not entirely happy with it, but I will try to remedy that here. Let's see what he has for us.

Let us call pain and misery "first-order evil" or "evil (1)." What contrasts with this, namely, pleasure and happiness, will be called "first-order good" or "good (1)."

Distinct from this is "second-order good" or "good (2)," which somehow emerges in a complex situation in which evil (1) is a necessary component -- logically, not merely causally, necessary.

(Exactly how it emerges does not matter: ... in other versions it includes sympathy with suffering, heroism in facing danger, and the gradual decrease of first-order evil and increase of first-order good.)

It is also being assumed that second-order good is more important than first-order good or evil, in particular that it more than outweighs the first-order evil it involves. (67)

The first objection to this that Mackie advances is that goods of the 2nd order may be mere means to the goods of the 1st order. This is true when rightly understood. Human beings have nature, personality, and narrow happiness, the latter understood as satisfaction of desires, whatever they are. Improvement in nature (in charity, wisdom, and their fruit of fear of the law) is man's first end; in personal virtue, his second end; and in narrow happiness, his third and last end, to be sought and achieved in this precise order. "Each of these ends is also an essential constitutive part of true happiness which consists in an appropriate union of the three." Therefore, the 2nd-order good of sympathy, heroism, etc. is a stepping stone to 1st-order pleasure, but an essential one without which true happiness cannot be had. There is no human happiness without pure nature and virtuous character. Mackie is right to refuse to "press this objection." (68)

Let us now call 1st-order goods (evils) physical goods (evils); 2nd-order goods, moral goods. Mackie continues that the human response to 1st-order evils can itself be evil (in which case it will be a moral evil of the 2nd order). "This would include malevolence, cruelty, callousness, cowardice, and states in which good (1) is decreasing and evil (1) increasing." (68) And the same reasoning would apply to discredit the notion that the purpose of the (n)th-order evil is to promote (n + 1)th-order good.

Fortunately, Mackie is not done with the solutions to the problem of evil. For we can now say that 2nd-order evil is due to 3rd-order metaphysical good of human free will:

To explain why a wholly good God gave men free will although it would lead to some important evils, it must be argued that it is better on the whole that men should act freely, and sometimes err, than that they should be innocent automata, acting rightly in a wholly determined way.

Freedom, that is to say, is now treated as a third-order good and as being more valuable than second-order goods (such as sympathy and heroism) would be if they were deterministically produced, and it is being assumed that second-order evils, such as cruelty, are logically necessary accompaniments of freedom, just as pain is a logically necessary precondition of sympathy. (68-9)

Inspired, isn't it? Mackie immediately objects that an omnipotent God would have been able to create humans who, though possessing free will, always chose the good. "If there is no logical impossibility in a man's freely choosing the good on one, or on several, occasions, there cannot be a logical impossibility in his freely choosing the good on every occasion." (69) Well, there is indeed no logical impossibility of never committing a sin, but given that humans live, on average, for something like 80 years and start out as infants with only minuscule amounts of love, knowledge, and power, having to acquire those by growing up in a tremendously complex world and to become highly complex human beings, mistakes (which include morally evil deeds) are practically inevitable.

Even St. Thomas noted that "our knowledge is so imperfect that no philosopher has ever been able to discover perfectly the nature of a single fly." (AC, 1.I.A.5.a) Of course, now we know that even a fly exhibits incredible specified complexity and is an engineering marvel.

A more serious objection consists in asking whether there are (3rd-order) metaphysical evils and if so, then what justifies them. My reply will consist in 3 steps.

First, it seems that examples of metaphysical evils abound:

  1. scarcity of consumer goods and factors of production;
  2. the inevitability of death;
  3. temporal as opposed to eternal existence combined with the weakness of both memory and foresight;
  4. practical unavoidability of errors in life, including those from which one cannot recover;
  5. natural poverty;
  6. unlimited wants coupled with the paucity of power to satisfy them;
  7. proneness to moral corruption (being corrupt, e.g., having a vicious character, is, indeed, a moral evil, but proneness to corruption is part of human nature and so is a metaphysical evil);
  8. to take complementary examples from physics and moral theology, entropy that wears on the body and temptations that wear on the soul;

and suchlike. In other words,

  1. a particular instance of pain is a physical evil;
  2. if that physical evil is unjustly inflicted on one person by another, then this crime itself is an instance of moral evil;
  3. finally, the "existential" fact that pain is unavoidable in the life of a human being is a metaphysical evil, a fundamental and inescapable limitation of the world.

Again, when a given lion kills a given antelope, the latter's suffering is a physical evil of some sort. But that nature as a whole is designed in such a way that the two are natural enemies and that one of them must die, either the antelope to feed the lion or the lion from starvation, is a metaphysical evil. That a certain factory pollutes the air and harms my health is a physical evil (suffered by me). But the fact that there cannot be 100% efficient machines, and some pollution is inevitable is a metaphysical evil.

Yet, and second, we can counter this by noticing that metaphysical evil would seem to take the form of apparent (1) evil per se or defects of created nature and (2) evil per accidens or the fate of human beings to suffer. However, everything likes being what it is (if it did not, then it would not live for long). I enjoy being human, for example, and would want to turn into neither a frog below the level of perfection of my nature nor an angel above. The alleged metaphysical evil per se is nothing of the sort but is actually good!

That a person is able to feel pain and anguish seems bad, too, until one realizes that this again is part of the design of the world and a good thing. Without the duality of suffering and pleasure, there would be no thinking, no action, and no soul-making. The evil per accidens, then, is also only apparent, and to a novice in philosophy.

Third, as a response to this suggestion that metaphysical evil is an illusion, we can still further object that nature is often exceedingly brutal and cruel and dark. It is hardly paradise, so the puzzle is the sheer amount of metaphysical evil in the world. Christianity attributes this strange and seemingly scandalous corruption of nature to the human "original sin." But the Genesis story seems like a set-up. Why? Well, it is part of the Christian understanding that God the Father created nature within the Garden of Eden without a blemish and rested thereupon. Metaphysical evil came into the world later. This happened in order to facilitate the mission of the second person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, that commenced immediately upon the original creation. See, e.g.,

Goodness: Creator and Destroyer;
Goodness: The Ultimatum;
Sins Against the Holy Spirit.

God may have felt that we needed to be softened up so that grace may rebuild us both by healing nature and by building on nature. Artificial metaphysical evil introduced upon the "original sin" resulted in the fact that we are not fully human. This is a great metaphysical evil from the point of view of God the Father but perhaps is somehow useful to God the Holy Spirit in His unique mission. God needed us to have a greater potential which was bought at the expense of lower integrity and perfection of our nature and actuality.

Given these arguments, let's evaluate the following. "As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' Jesus answered, 'Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.'" (Jn 9:1-3)

The blindness of the man is a physical evil; the works of God (by which works of mercy by man assisted by the Holy Spirit's grace are meant) are moral goods; that nature is such as occasionally to cause blind children to be born is a metaphysical evil. But the divine project requires even this latter evil in order to unify the world which, when all is accomplished, will be vastly metaphysically superior to the original creation even with the latter's pristine and unspoiled nature which lacked obvious flaws.

Regarding that project, both God and humans are all in and full speed ahead; all the bridges are burned; there is no going back into any natural happiness either here or in the hereafter; you are either with God in His astonishing enterprise or against God. He who is not ascending to heaven is by that very fact descending into hell.

Finally, Mackie asks, "Why... should God refrain from controlling evil wills? Why should he not leave men free to will rightly, but intervene when he sees them beginning to will wrongly?" (70)

First, controlling evil wills would seem to entail destruction of the natural laws, according to which human nature operates on its own. In such a case, man would be good by divine goodness not by his own, which is contrary to divine purpose.

Second, God does exercise providence by bestowing grace. St. Thomas enumerates "five effects of grace in us: of these, the first is, to heal the soul; the second, to desire good; the third, to carry into effect the good proposed; the fourth, to persevere in good; the fifth, to reach glory." (ST, II-I, 111, 3) This interaction is very subtle: "a man may, of himself, know something, and with certainty; and in this way no one can know that he has grace." (112, 5)

Third, God cannot unilaterally decide what sort of person one wants to be. One has to make his own identity. That's why God cannot crudely interfere with the process of self-making. Mackie argues that "there would be a loss of value if God took away the wrongness and freedom together. But this is utterly opposed to what theists say about sin in other contexts." (70) What is he talking about? Who would want his own freedom to be taken away so long as he no longer sins? The key is to learn not to make mistakes in life while retaining one's freedom, to become a human saint, not to turn into a machine.

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