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A New(?) Problem of Evil
New to me anyway!
The standard problem of evil is usually presented as a tension between the clearly observable fact that evil in the world exists and the triad of God's omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and omniscience. Consider, for example (pace Ivan Karamazov), the death of an (innocent) infant at the hands of some terrible murderous agent. Given God's traits, this death could have been prevented since God knew about it (he's omniscient), he wishes it wouldn't happen (he's omnibenevolent and wishes well for all of his creations), and he's capable of stopping it (he's omnipotent). Nevertheless, the child is killed in some horrible manner. Why?
The standard response is usually to appeal to the value of free will. There are a couple of version of this defense. Very roughly, one argues that free will is of extremely high value such that a world in which there's free will and evil is better than a world in which there's no free will and no evil. So, for God to create a world in which there were no evil, it would require that he create a world in which there is no free will, and this would be a worse world. Since God made the world as good as it could possibly be, he made it with free will, letting evil exist as an unfortunate byproduct.
A slightly different version rests on a certain vision of one's relation to God. Specifically, God wants to test us to see if we're worthy of the infinitely good reward in the afterlife. For the test to mean anything, we have to have free will, and the ability to have free will involves the ability to choose to do terrible shit. If we couldn't choose to reject God and could only do what God wanted us to do, then the test wouldn't be a test of anything and everyone would immediately go to heaven. Hence, evil is explained as the means necessary to justify or earn one's place in heaven.
A third, less cynical version stresses the development of a certain kind of relationship with God. Again, very roughly, God wants us to have a certain kind of relationships with him that is chosen freely and that is grown and developed. He doesn't want to make us, as it were, readymade for him and already loving him, but wants us to grow and choose to do so through a deepening understanding that develops over time. And, of course, if we have the ability to choose such to have such a relationship by not sinning, we can also choose to sin, and that involves the ability to choose to do horrible shit. Here, the greater value that explains evil is one's relationship with God and not necessarily freedom of the will, but freedom of the will is still in the mix since the only way in which this particular relationship can be had is through a free will. Hence, evil is still explained by appeal to freedom of the will.
These explanations are not mutually exclusive. It can be the case that God wants a certain relationship with us, that the development of this relationship serves as a kind of test, and that furthermore a world with free wills and evil is better than a world without either. I want to grant all of these but raise a different version of the problem of evil that I don't think can be explained by appealing to free will at all. At least not any that I can think of.
Now, as far as I'm aware, nobody thinks that freedom of the will requires success in action. My will is free if I fail in doing what I will to do or if I succeed. In saying this I don't mean to say anything about when my will is or isn't free--at least not directly. Rather, I want to make the claim that it's not the case that my will is free only if I'm successful in doing what I intend to do and that this is true even if I don't provide a positive account of what it means for me to have a free will. The argument for this is fairly straightforward: the denial of this claim implies that my will was free only when I successfully do what I want to do. This has the bizarre implication that if I attempt to strangle you to death but you manage to fight me off, then I did not act of my free will (this might be true for other reasons, but not because I didn't kill you!). More generally, it has the implication that each of us is radically alienated from any failed assertion of our wills.
I'm not familiar with any philosopher that holds this view (though, I am not a free will scholar). The more sensible view is that freedom of the will occurs...well...in the will, or in the head, or heart, or soul, or whatever. One's will is free, for example, if one's actions flow from one's values or are in line with their second order desires or whatever (c.f. Watson and Frankfurt), but not just in case one's will produces certain results through action.
More importantly, the Bible (or its author/s) doesn't seem hold this view. As we know very well from the New Testament, sin begins in the heart and the person who commits adultery there is just as guilty of the act as someone who actually goes through with it. If this is the source of sin, if the ability to sin presupposes the the ability to choose, and if the ability of choice presupposes freedom of the will, then free will exists prior to any consequences that one produces through action. Again, God doesn't just judge us for actually committing adultery but also for intending to commit it, wanting to commit it, wishing to commit it and so on.
Supposing this is right, let's return to the case of child murders and let's go full-blown Ivan Karamazov with this:
“One picture, only one more, because it's so curious, so characteristic, and I have only just read it in some collection of Russian antiquities. I've forgotten the name. I must look it up. It was in the darkest days of serfdom at the beginning of the century, and long live the Liberator of the People! There was in those days a general of aristocratic connections, the owner of great estates, one of those men—somewhat exceptional, I believe, even then—who, retiring from the service into a life of leisure, are convinced that they've earned absolute power over the lives of their subjects. There were such men then. So our general, settled on his property of two thousand souls, lives in pomp, and domineers over his poor neighbors as though they were dependents and buffoons. He has kennels of hundreds of hounds and nearly a hundred dog-boys—all mounted, and in uniform. One day a serf-boy, a little child of eight, threw a stone in play and hurt the paw of the general's favorite hound. ‘Why is my favorite dog lame?’ He is told that the boy threw a stone that hurt the dog's paw. ‘So you did it.’ The general looked the child up and down. ‘Take him.’ He was taken—taken from his mother and kept shut up all night. Early that morning the general comes out on horseback, with the hounds, his dependents, dog-boys, and huntsmen, all mounted around him in full hunting parade. The servants are summoned for their edification, and in front of them all stands the mother of the child. The child is brought from the lock-up. It's a gloomy, cold, foggy autumn day, a capital day for hunting. The general orders the child to be undressed; the child is stripped naked. He shivers, numb with terror, not daring to cry.... ‘Make him run,’ commands the general. ‘Run! run!’ shout the dog-boys. The boy runs.... ‘At him!’ yells the general, and he sets the whole pack of hounds on the child. The hounds catch him, and tear him to pieces before his mother's eyes!..."
The Brothers Karamazov ("The Rebellion", page 303-304)
I once read that this was a real case that Dostoyevsky found in a newspaper and used in the novel, but even if it wasn't, we can imagine that it was a real one (in fact, there are no shortages of such cases in real life, but I didn't want to go too dark here).
Here, keeping what has been said about freedom of the will in mind, the question we can ask is not the general question of why does God allow the existence of this evil, but why does God allow the general to be successful in killing the child?
Notice that the appeals to the freedom of the will won't be satisfying here. The general exercises his free will in willing to kill the child. As such, he marks himself as a sinner, he fails God's test, he ruins his relationship with him, and so on. None of these things requires that the general must succeed in killing the boy! If God had interfered the moment before the dogs tore up the boy by making their teeth turn to jelly, by having them trip, or by striking down the general before he issues the order to kill (but after willing that the boy die), freedom of the will would still be preserved!
I suppose someone might say (as the Grand Inquisitor stresses in the subsequent chapter) that if God had interfered in this way then he would provide a certainty for his existence and would make it impossible to doubt. Consequently, it would make faith impossible. Perhaps this is right, but even if we grant that we only need to alter the scenario slightly: how many children are made to suffer or are killed by adults in secret? We only need one for this to be a problem (and if you doubt that there are any, here's one! CW: the worst stuff. It's Joseph Fritzl) What justifies these cases?
The only possible solution I can see to this problem of evil is that there's something about the completion of an action that's crucial to having a free will. But I can't understand why this should be the case. Set aside the whole sin-in-your-heart thing I mentioned earlier. Why should the consequences of one's actions coming to fruition be an integral part of having free will? I'm at a loss.
I imagine someone might appeal to some soul building appeal here in the sense that one has to see the consequences of one's actions in order to learn from them. In other words, if it weren't possible for the general to kill the child and for him to make it the case that the child dies, then it would be impossible for him to learn or know that he shouldn't do that. But that seems to me to be a pathetically anemic response. Now we're no longer concerned with the value of free will, but with the limitations of human psychology (which, mind you, God gave us!)--innocent kids need to die in horrible ways so that some murdering asshole can't learn in any other way? How is this omnipotence? How is it omnibenevolence to make such limited creatures?!
Here, again, Ivan Karamazov looms large: this is the world God made?! This is the perfect harmony that's promised?
Very well, I return my ticket!