In a penetrating paper, H.J. McCloskey considers a number of arguments in defense of God’s existence when faced with the theological problem of evil.

Let me mention a few that seem to be straw men that McCloskey gleefully demolishes. The second argument is “physical evil is God’s punishment for sin. This kind of explanation was advanced to explain the terrible Lisbon earthquake in the eighteenth century, in which 40,000 people were killed. There are many replies to this argument, for instance Voltaire’s. Voltaire asked: ‘Did God in this earthquake select the 40,000 least virtuous of the Portuguese citizens?'” (209) But the argument rather is that the world with physical evil (i.e., one in which such evil occurs from time to time) is punishment for the Original Sin to the human race as a whole; it’s not the case that a given instance of physical evil is punishment to a particular Smith for a particular actual sin.

Prior to that, McCloskey ascribes to theists the fault of “denying the reality of evil by describing it as a ‘privation’ or absence of good.” (207) Now evil is not mere absence of good; it is absence of good that ought by right to be there. This is unlike true absence of good for which it is not the case that this good ought to have been there all along. An obvious example of the latter is poverty. It’s a natural human condition of lack of wealth; that man ought to be prosperous is in no way the “correct” state of affairs unjustly violated; hence poverty is not an evil but absence of good. It is ironic that McCloskey dismisses this argument, since any genuine physical evil depends on the existence of a good God who for seemingly unfathomable reasons lets us suffer. It is McCloskey who must deny the reality of evil. It is wrong to conflate evil and absence of good; but it is also wrong to fail to realize that it is meaningless to speak of physical evil without God.

(Another example: a gifted child has more potential than a regular child. If evil were merely absence of good, then the former would have to be judged worse than the latter, since being gifted yet undeveloped implies a greater distance from self-perfection. This perverse conclusion is avoided once we grasp that it’s not the case that a gifted kid ought to be perfect but only that he ought to strive to become a perfect adult much later in life.)

The fifth argument is that “the universe is better with evil in it.” McCloskey wants proof that all physical evil is “in fact valuable and necessary as a means to greater good.” (212) Again, however, the problem of evil is a logical — and hence strong — puzzle of how a good and perfect Creator can co-exist with a perilous world like ours. In order to dispose of the paradox, it is sufficient “simply to suggest that physical evil might nonetheless have a justification, although we may never come to know this justification.”

McCloskey goes on to assert that on this argument “we could [then] never know whether evil is really evil, or good really good. … By implication it follows that it would be dangerous to eliminate evil because we may thereby introduce a discordant element into the divine symphony of the universe; and, conversely, it may be wrong to condemn the elimination of what is good, because the latter may result in the production of more, higher goods.” (213) But he himself disposes of this objection by admitting that “physical evil enriches the whole by giving rise to moral goodness…, noble moral virtues — courage, endurance, benevolence, sympathy, and the like.” When a man eliminates physical evil, he by that fact creates a moral good; moreover, no discordant element is introduced, because he leaves “enough and as bad,” to parody Locke, for everyone else.

Now moral good can be elicited by physical evil, but so can moral evil. The theist “then goes on to account for moral evil in terms of the value of free will and/or its goods.” (214) McCloskey objects that free will would then seem to justify a hellish world with only moral evil, and in such a world physical evil would incidentally not be justified.

We will deal with moral evil in the next post.


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