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God and Cosmos Chapter 3: The Problem of Evil, Freedom, and Moral Responsibility

Summary by Frederick  Choo

Part 1

In this chapter, Baggett and Walls talk about the problem of evil. This is not the problem of evil as often heard in philosophy of religion (Why is there evil if a good and all-powerful God exists?). Instead, they refer to Susan Neiman who traced the problem of evil in modern thought. The problem of evil is that the world is not as it should be. There is a gap between how the world is, and how the world ought to be. Questions arise, for example, what reason do we have to think that some event ought not to happen? The answer is clear in Christian theology of course, that evil is at odds with God and His purposes. It is a problem that God Himself is working to overcome with His plan of salvation and redemption that will ultimately be fully accomplished.

Baggett and Walls review three influential modern thinkers. The first thinker is David Hume. Philo (a character in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion who is said to represent Hume) thinks that the designer of our world is neither good nor bad. This is because if the designer was good, he would will the happiness of his creatures. However, it is apparent that our world is not designed to achieve this end. Hume’s argument for God’s moral indifference dissolves the problem of evil. It explains why the natural world is indifferent to human happiness. Baggett and Walls note here that it is odd that an amoral God would give human beings the ability to make moral judgments.

The second thinker is Immanuel Kant. Kant thinks that the nature of the highest good includes both virtue and happiness. He thinks that happiness and virtue should be tightly connected. The problem then is that the natural order is not arranged such that happiness and virtue correspond. The world for him is no less hostile to morality than it is to human happiness.

The third thinker is Friedrich Nietzsche. His problem was that Christian morality was hostile to happiness, restraining us from expressing our instincts. For him, the real problem of evil is that we thought it was a problem. Without God and objective morality in his view, he thinks that we have no reason to think that the world should be good in the Christian sense of supporting either our happiness or moral virtue. Sigmund Freud seems to agree with Nietzsche’s view. Freud argued that religious belief is an illusion fostered by childish needs for security in a frightening world. Instead, he thinks that evil is part of life to be expected and coped with. There is no reason to think that the world ought to promote human happiness. Hence Nietzsche dissolves the problem of evil.

Neiman thinks that the problem of evil gives us the choice to either give up making moral judgments, or to come to terms with the demoralizing reality that the gap between what is and what ought to be will never be closed. Neiman herself takes the latter option and argues that recognizing evil as a problem is essential to our humanity. Instead of denying the problem of evil, we should accept that there is a conflict that will never be resolved. Baggett and Walls agree with Neiman that evil is a problem to humanity, but they want to argue that there are options other than resigning oneself to accept a conflict that will never be resolved. On the Christian story, there is another option, namely, that the gap will one day be resolved.

The main point being driven here is that God’s nature as the best explanation of moral good, and the fact that He created us in his image, constitute an excellent explanation both of why we cannot avoid making moral judgments about the world and of why we cannot escape seeing evil as a problem. We will constantly see a gap between the way the world is and the way it ought to be, as long as we live in a fallen world that is “groaning for redemption.” Naturalism, on the other hand, has no reason to believe that there is a problem of evil. Consider Richard Dawkins who thinks that the ultimate reality is morally indifferent (similar to Nietzsche and Hume). Evil and suffering is not surprising. There is no gap between the way the world is and the way it ought to be.

Part 2

Having discussed the problem of evil, Baggett and Walls turn to discuss freedom and responsibility, by examining an exchange between three naturalist philosophers. This exchange started after Daniel Dennett reviewed Bruce Waller’s Against Moral Responsibility. Most philosophers are compatibilists, who think that determinism (the view that every event and state of affairs is completely determined by antecedent states of affairs and the laws that govern the physical world) is compatible with both human freedom (defined as doing what one wants to do) and at least some measure of moral responsibility. Waller however argues that while determinism and naturalism are compatible with freedom, they are not compatible with moral responsibility. Waller defines moral responsibility in a strong sense that holds praise/blame and reward/punishment as justified because moral agents deserve so. It is intrinsically good for offenders to suffer. This is known as the retributivist view of moral dessert that rejects consequences as relevant for punishment or blame. Contra Waller, Dennett thinks that moral responsibility should not be understood in these terms. He adopts a consequentialist account of just desserts and punishments. Punishment is needed to keep civilization from disintegrating; it is a practical necessity. Dennett uses the example of promise making and making contracts. The threat of punishments deters one from breaking one’s promises or contract. This threat is essential for the glue of civilization to hold.

9780199931194Tom Clark, the organizer of the exchange, makes a few points. First, he says that Dennett should give up the language of “just desserts” which implies the retributivist view. Second, the traditional account of moral responsibility is strongly shaped by a long history of believing in libertarian freedom (a stronger view of freedom than determinism is generally thought to allow). Hence, many think that dropping the retributivist view of just desserts alters the concept of moral responsibility. Third, he thinks naturalists should focus on debunking libertarian freedom to undermine the appeal to such freedom to justify punishment. Fourth, compatibilists must change how they think of humankind. They have to be honest that in their view, no one has the unconditional ability to do otherwise. He accuses Dennett of suppressing his commitment to determinism in attempting to make moral sense of punishment, just desserts, and deterrence. Dennett responds by highlighting the practical necessity of punishment to protect society from criminals. We should use force to quarantine muggers, enroll them in rehabilitation programs, and warn society to avoid them. Dennett says that if Waller and Clark agree to this but say we should not blame the muggers, then they are simply engaging in a rhetorical dodge. Waller continues to press the point that the system of moral responsibility is unfair, even if he has no better alternative system to offer.

To give further insight to the discussion, consider Dennett’s discussion of Bernie Madoff. Madoff is infamous for costing people millions of dollars lost in his fraudulent financial schemes. Surely in such a case, punishment is necessary. Dennett writes, “If somebody’s unavoidable mistake led to similar financial loss, we wouldn’t do that, would we? It’s because we deem Madoff guilty that we consider that we have the right to rescind his rights (under the moral responsibility game) and do all these things to him that he doesn’t want us to do, and which we couldn’t justifiably do if he weren’t guilty. That’s punishment. Not retributive punishment, but punishment and blame, all the same.” From this example, it is easy to see why Waller and Clark criticized Dennett for helping himself to the traditional view of moral responsibility and retributivist punishment. Dennett says that it is not fair to blame someone for something over which they had no control. But in Madoff’s case, Madoff was determined to defraud each of his clients by casual factors prior to him, over which he had no control. There is no alternative possibility. Next, Dennett emphasizes that we are justified in punishing Madoff, because Madoff is found guilty. This seems to be the retributivist position that Madoff did something to deserve punishment.

Baggett and Walls think that this debate makes many points against naturalism. Both freedom and moral responsibility fit far more naturally in a theistic account of morality. The whole notion of promise keeping also better makes sense on libertarian terms than on compatibilist terms. Thomas Reid had observed that “when I plight my faith in any promise or contract, I must believe that I shall have power to perform what I promise. Without this persuasion, a promise would be a downright fraud.” However, compatibilists believe that no one who fails to keep a promise had the ability to do otherwise (except in the counterfactual sense of being able to do otherwise if they’d wanted to). Whenever one makes a promise, it is possible that the natural order is arranged such that when the appointed time comes, one shall be determined to will not to keep one’s promises. Hence this is at odds with making promises, since doing so assumes that we can both keep our promises or not, and it also assumes that we have control over our actions. The reality of conscious control over our actions make better sense on libertarian freedom than the view that our actions are determined by a causal chain that preceded our very existence, and over which we had no control. On compatibilism, the agent has no alternate possibilities, and the agent is not the ultimate originator or source of his actions, since there is a causal chain external and prior to them, that is sufficient to determine those exact outcomes.


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