The Problem of Evil

August 27, 2006 at 4:27 am 1 comment

The Problem of Moral Evil: A Consideration of the Free Will Defence and Marilyn McCord Adams’ Theodicy 

That the problem of evil poses a significant challenge to theism is illustrated by the long history of the philosophic and theologic debate surrounding this matter.  Due to its vast and complex history, in this essay I have chosen to consider two theistic approaches to the problem of moral evil: the free will defence and the theodicy of Marilyn McCord Adams.  A study of the free will defence requires that one consider the logical problem of evil.  This allows for an appropriate background to evaluate the free will defence, and a number of significant debates surrounding it. 
Adams theodicy provides a significant contrast to the free will defence: rather than a consideration of why God allows evils, but how God can defeat evil in the context of an individual’s life. 
Adams’ theodicy is far more of a theological exercise, than a philosophical one.  Thus, a review of her work must be carried out with more attention to its conceptual detail.  The purpose of this essay is to consider two prominent theistic debates, and their impact of the problem of evil.

The problem of evil has been approached contemporaneously by some as a logical problem.  Central to this argument is the contribution of J. L. Mackie.  For Mackie, theistic belief is, “positively irrational”, due to the problems involved in reconciling the following essential statements of theistic belief:

            a)  God is omnipotent and omniscient

            b)  God is omni-benevolent

            c)  Evil exists in the world.[1]

As Mackie as others after him have notes, the inconsistency between these three statements soon becomes apparent if one considers a and b to conclude that such a being would prevent c.[2]  Only two of any of the above statements  may be true at any one time, necessarily negating the other.  However, theistic belief requires the truth of a and b, while it cannot reject the clear evidence of c. 

A theistic rebuttal to the logical problem of evil that is entertained widely is the free will defence.  This argument is not constricted to modern debates. Indeed, it has been central to a number of Christian considerations of the problem of evil, it clearly evidenced in both the Augustinian and Ireanean theodicies.[3]  In the contemporary debate, arguments are focused upon the approach of Alvin Platinga.  Platinga’s approach follows a similar format to that of other theistic rebuttals to the logical problem of evil.  It considers the possibility of a b and c being true through the addition of a fourth statement, d: that God created agents who are significantly free to choose and act according to their own free will.  Thus, the free will defence attempts to maintain the truth of a and b, whilst entailing c.[4]

Naturally, the notion of free will must be defined and placed in context if it is to provide an appropriate defence of God,  The concept of free will that Platinga has proposed is specifically incompatible with determinism.  In that, if an agent is free, she is able to perform of refrain from a given action: there are “no causal laws or antecedent conditions that determine the outcome of the given situation.”[5]  Platinga stipulates that one must consider the moral dimension of free will.  The agent is able to recognise the moral significance of their action, and is able to perform or refrain from any such action.[6]  Thus, God chose to create free agents who are able to perform actions with the knowledge of their moral significance.  This, according to Platinga, is a situation that is far more valuable than a world without free agents.  However, this also entails the existence of agents who choose to perform morally wrong or evil actions.  God could not have prevented this without also preventing the ability to perform morally good actions.[7]

There have been a number of atheistic objections to the free will defence as proposed by Alvin Platinga.   A predominant objection has been raised by J. L. Mackie.[8]  Mackie posits that God, if she is to be attributed with the traditional concepts of omnipotence, omniscience and omni-benevolence, could have made free agents that always choose good.[9]  According to Mackie: “if there is no logical impossibility in a man’s (sic) freely choosing the good on the one, or on several occasions, there is no logical impossibility in his (sic) freely choosing good on every occasion.”[10]  However, Mackie’s assertion is not as straight forward as he assumes.  Platinga notes Mackie’s attack and considers whether God can maintain the freedom of an agent is she causes the agent to choose rightly.  Freedom is reliant upon the ability to choose or refrain from performing an action: if God ensures than an agent chooses 1, they are not in actuality free to refrain from doing so.[11]  Gods omnipotence is subject to logical limits which requires that she cannot ensure an agent choose 1, whilst maintaining the agents freedom.

James Cain has considered Mackie’s attack seriously.[12]  Cain, I believe significantly points out that Mackie’s objections can indeed be considered to be logical on an epistemic and conceptual level.[13]  However, this is not the case if we are to consider free will and the consequential phenomena of an evil action as a subject of metaphysic enquiry.  Indeed, Cain notes that free will is an occurrence that is central to human activity, and thus has a nature that can be considered: we may draw conclusions about its nature.[14]  According to our current metaphysical understanding of human choice and free will, it is impossible it is impossible for it to be determined.[15]  The point here is that while one may conceptualise of a world like Mackie’s, it is impossible to see how that world would function within the constrictions of ours.

Mackies’ objection also ignores the matter of moral significance in the choice of God creating free agents: if God had created beings who always chose rightly, there would be no moral significance to their actions.  Without the ability to choose an evil action, there is no ability to choose a good action: moral significance is related to consequences of an action, and the freedom to have chosen differently.  To choose to respect another’s wishes becomes significant when one considers the impact of not doing so, and the fact that one was able to not do so.  Therefore, it is clear that Mackie’s notion of God creating right choosing free beings is essentially positing a non-logical being who operates outside the metaphysical nature of our world, and in doing so, robs this world of any moral significance. 

Steven Boër has presented an alternative attack on the free will defence.[16]  Boër rejects the free will defence on the basis that God could have created free agents who were able to choose wrongly, however God would intervene and prevent the consequence of the agents choices through, “coincidental miracles.”[17]  As with Mackie’s approach, Boër’s approach is also problematic. 

Firstly, Boër’s notion of non-consequential evil actions ignores the direct link between action and consequence; without this, there is no moral significance to an action.[18]  Thus, there is little significance to ‘good’ actions either, if good consequences are always ensured.[19] Furthermore, one must question whether Boër’s approach allows for freedom of choice: if attempting to perform an evil action in such a world would be impossible, it is likely that agents would realise this and therefore never attempt to do so.[20]  For example, it is a natural fact that in this world, I cannot breathe through water.  As this is apparent, no one attempts to breathe water. 

Additionally, God must also intervene on choices made by an agent who perceived it to be good, yet had negative consequences that the agent could not foresee.  Further to this, actions that would be considered small or irrelevant evils would gain greater significance in such a world.  To illustrate, the act of feeding a child sweets becomes morally evil in this universe: it causes tooth decay, prevents later hunger, provides the child with no nutritional value, and can lead to obesity, which in turn has numerous health problems.[21]  Boër’s world removes any moral significance to individual actions and in essence, removes free will.  Furthermore, an inconsequential world will ultimately stagnate. 

The free will defence offers a considerable argument for the existence of God in the context of the problem of evil.  However, it is not accepted unanimously.  The debate concerning the problem of evil continues quite vehemently, producing arguments from both sides.  A significant theistic contribution is that of Marilyn McCord Adams. 
Adams focuses on what the problem of ‘horrendous evils’ poses to the Christian tradition.

Horrendous evils are defined by
Adams as those whose participation in, for both the perpetrator and victim provide one with, “reason prima facie to doubt whether one’s life could be a great good to one on the whole.”
Adams ambitiously lists what she believes to be horrendous evils.  Two examples of which include the rape of a woman and the dismemberment of her arms, and the child abuse as described by Iavn Karamazov.
[24]  The importance here is that
Adams focus in on the impact (and resolution) of evil upon the individual lives, rather than attempting to provide a global theodicy that ignores individual suffering. 

Adams posits that a theodicy that provides the individual with a means of defeating the evil in their life will focus upon how God is good; rather than why God allowed the evil in the first instance.
[25]  This entails integrating participation in horrendous evils into a person’s relationship with the divine.[26] 
Adams provides three ways in which she believes the experience of evils are able to be integrated into the divine relationship.  The first is through a “sympathetic” or “mystical” identification with the passion of Christ.
[27]  Secondly,
Adams draws upon the notion of divine gratitude as presented by Julian of Norwich.
[28]  Thirdly, one may construe one’s own suffering to be a, “vision into the inner life of God.”[29]  These experiences according to
Adams provide the individual with a defeat of evil in their life:  interaction with God’s goodness provides them with the ability to create meaning to their pain.

Adams theodicy is interesting in the way in which she focuses upon religious concepts within the Christian tradition and rejects wider secular and philosophic notions.  This point is of course a matter for which she could be criticised, however, to do would miss the importance of what she has performed. 
Adams’ theodicy is interested in a theodicy for the religious individual: it concerns itself with the religious belief of the individual (if only a certain population) and with the impact of evil upon them.

This is in stark contrast with other theodicies that struggle with complex and abstract ideas which are of no interest to the religious person.[30]  As Steven Cahn poignantly noted, logical arguments rarely result in a conversion.[31]  Rather Cahn considers belief in God to be related to a personal and infallible experience with of God.[32]  The connection between these two academics points to a recognition that belief in God adnd the challenge of evil is a psychological problem, which as Adams’ and Cahn posit, are resolved for many only through an experience of God.

Adams focus upon Christian beliefs has been considered by some important.  Indeed, as William Placher and Charles Hefling have noted, identification with Christ’s suffering as a clear history within Christianity.
[33]  Furthermore,
Adams consideration of the effect of perpetrating evils is a placement that provides a deeper understanding of pain and evil: it recognises that we are indeed all victims and more importantly, rings true to the notion of salvation.
[34]  However, some find this recognition disturbing,: Phillip Quinn questions whether
Adams allows Judas’ betrayal to become meaningful – or, Quinn states, “is Judas rightly located at the bottom of Dante’s hell?”

Central to a number of objections to
Adams’ work is her reliance on a psychological recognition of the divine in one’s suffering.  Heffling notes that an identification with Christ in suffering is strictly psychological, it is not “determined” or under one’s control.
[36]  Andrew Chignell has also approached work similarly, on the basis of infant suffering.[37] 

Chignell considers that
Adams three modes of integration with the divine relies on a “self-conscious” recognition or identification with the divine that is surely impossible for infants.
[38]  However, as Basinger notes, a child may later in life attribute meaning to an evil event, or, celebrate its significance post-mortemly.[39]  Clearly,
Adams theodicy is not free from its detractors. However, perhaps as some have noted, its importance is not in its problematic details, but in the way in which it promotes a shift in focus upon individual belief and suffering.

Evidently, the free will defence and
Adams’ theodicy have incredibly different modes of approaching the problem of evil, despite the fact that they are both attempting to defend theism.  The free will defence is clearly quite a strong argument for the existence of evil in a God created world.  Those who have provided challenges to this approach do so on a largely conceptual basis, however, I have taken that free will must be taken metaphysically.

Furthermore, the approaches of Mackie and Boër are weakened by the inability to consider the importance of moral significance within our world and the free will defence. 
Adams’ theodicy is radically different in its approach to the problem of evil.  Her interest in how evil affects individual life and beliefs is indeed a needed approach.  While her argument is certainly problematic, and may not be concerned with a majority of religious believers, the way in which she approaches the subject is perhaps far more in touch with religious belief and practice.  However, while some may not be affected by logical arguments, it is sure that others are.  In conclusion, it is my belief that these arguments may or may not defeat the problem of evil. It is impossible to state surely which answer one may give, when this problem is truly a matter for the individual believer. 

[1] Mackie, J. L. 1990 “Evil and Omnipotence”  in Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams ed. The Problem of Evil. p. 25.
University Press,
New York. p. 25

[2] Mackie. “Evil” p. 25; Keller, J. 1989. “The Problem of Evil and the Attributes of God” Philosophy of Religion. vol. 26 pp. 155-171. p. 155.

[3] Hick, J.  1997. Evil and the God of Love. Harper Collins,
New York. p. 265. 

[4] Platinga, A. 1990. “God, Evil and the Metaphysics of Freedom” in Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams. p. 83.
University Press,
New York. p. 84. 

[5] Platinga. “God” p. 84. 

[6] Platinga. “God” p. 84

[7] Platinga. “God” p. 85

[8] It is also raised notoriously by Anthonly Flew.  Mackie. “Evil”; Penelhum, T. 1990. “Divine Goodness and the Problem of Evil” in Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams ed. The Problem of Evil. p. 69.
University Publishing,
New York. p. 69.

[9] Mackie. “Evil” p. 33

[10] Mackie. “Evil” p. 33

[11] Platinga. “God” p. 89

[12] Cain, J.  2004. “Free Will and the Problem of Evil” Religious Studies. vol. 40 pp. 437-456.

[13] Cain “Free” p. 442-445. 

[14] Cain “Free” p. 446

[15] Cain also uses this logic to dismiss
Frankfurt style experiments on the basis that they are metaphysically impossible.  p. 446

[16] Boër, S.  1978. “The Irrelevance of the Free Will Defence” Analysis vol. 38 no. 2 pp. 110-112; A similar argument is proposed by Arthur Fleming. Fleming, A. 1986. “Omnibenevolence and Evil” Ethics. vol. 96 no. 2 pp. 261-281. 

[17] Boër, S. “Irrelevance” p. 111

[18] Layman, S. 1986. “Moral Evil: The Comparative Response” International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion. vol. 53. pp. 1-23. p. 10-11.

[19] Dilley, F. 1990. “The Free Will Defence and Worlds Without Moral Evil” Philosophy of Religion. vol. 27. pp. 1-15. p. 2

[20] Coughlan, M. 1986. “The Free Will Defence and Natural Evil”  Philosophy of Religion vol. 20 pp. 93-108. p. 100; Dilley. p. 2

[21] Dilley. “Free Will”  p. 3

Adams, M.  1990. “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God” in Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams ed. The Problem of Evil. p. 209.
University Press,
New York.  As
Adams is interested in the problem of evil for the Christian addition alone, she operates within Christian ideals whilst rejecting wider secularised concepts.  p. 210

Adams. “Horrendous” p. 211

Adams. “Horrendous” p. 211

Adams. “Horrendous” p. 217

Adams. “Horrendous” p. 218

Adams. “Horrendous” p. 219

Adams. “Horrendous” p. 219

Adams. “Horrendous” p. 219

[30] Placher, W. 2002. “An Engagement with Marilyn McCord Adams: Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God” Scottish Journal of Theology. vol.55 no. 4. pp. 461-467. p. 461; Cahn, S. 1969. “The Irrelevance to Religion of Philosophic Proofs for the Existence of God” vol. 6. no. 2. pp. 170-173. p. 170

[31] Cahn.“Irrelevance” p. 170

[32] Cahn. “Irrelevance” p. 173

[33] Placher. “Engagement” p. 461; Hefling, C. 1998. “Christ and Evils: Assessing an Aspect of Marilyn McCord Adams’ Theodicy” Anglican Theological Review. vol. 83. no. 4. pp. 869-892. p. 872

[34] McNaulty, M. 2000. “Review: Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God” Theological Studies. vol. 61. no. 4. pp. 772-774. p. 774; Placher. “Engagement” p. 466.  Indeed, many of the acts of Jesus are concerned with the acceptance of individuals on the basis of the personhood, rather on their past actions, on the condition that they renounce these and correct past wrongdoings. 

[35] Quinn, P. 2001. “Review: Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God” The Philosophical Review. vol. 110. no. 3. pp. 476-479. p. 477

[36] Hefling. “Problem” p. 872

[37] Chignell, A. 1998. “The Problem of Infant Suffering” Religious Studies. vol. 34. pp. 205-217.

[38] Chignell. “Infant” p. 208-211. 

[39] Basinger, D. 1999. “Infant Suffering: A Response to Chignell” Religious Studies. vol. 35. pp. 363-369. p. 366

[40] 2003. Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. third edition. ed. M. Peterson,
W. Hasker, B. Reicherbach, D. Basinger.
University Press,
New York. p.149


Entry filed under: Free-will defence, Horrendous evil, the problem of evil, Theodicy.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. DavidD  |  September 2, 2006 at 1:30 am

    The free will argument suggests that evil in the world exists due to human beings, whether from Adam’s sin or some more modern view. Between focusing on exactly what evil exists in the world and what one can understand about the causes of human evil from psychology, it doesn’t make sense to say the problem is mostly a matter of human choice.

    The benefits Adams cites cannot explain how much evil there is. It is much more than what is needed for such benefits. I see evil being so great that it keeps people from knowing God at all, not something that often pushes people toward God. If God is so powerless that He needs people to overcome long odds to reach Him, then He certainly is not omnipotent.


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