The Unfundamental Conversion

Utilitarianism and the Problem of Evil

August 15th, 2014 | Posted by Lana Hope in Philosophy

Evil is a problem for Christians and other theists because theists believe that God is maximally good and maximally powerful. If God can do anything, he could actualize a world of maximum goodness. So why do we have evil?

The answer that many have concluded is that God does not exist, or at least a maximally powerful God does not exist. Perhaps there are gods out there in this world, who are really great and powerful, but their powers are limited. A God of unlimited power, some conclude, does not exist.

But there are some atheists or undecided agnostics who grant the possibility that evil does not disclose the possibility that a God might exist. (Other facts about the world, such science, might lead these people to conclude that God does not exist, but evil itself might not prove that God does not exist.)

According to some, there are certain stipulations that God must meet in order to have a justified reason for evil and undeserved suffering.  If God does not meet those stipulations, then at minimum it reduces the possibility that God exists.

So what are these stipulations that God must meet? William Rowe, an atheist professor at Purdue University, has said there are two things that could justify evil.

  • 1) Something far worse might happen if God intervened and stopped a certain evil E.
  • 2) Humans would miss out on an overwhelming benefit that could never had happened without the presence of a certain evil E.

You might chuckle at bit at this proposal. For one, how could we possibly, ever, come up with an overwhelming benefit to every instance of evil in this world? And that is exactly Rowe’s point. He uses the example of a fawn dying in a forest fire. Undeserved suffering like fawns dying in forest fires happen times a million every single day, and God did not have to design a kind of world where fires are a necessity or where we sometimes have an excess of a certain species.

What I find interesting, however, is that most Christians have been using arguments similar to Rowe’s long before analytical philosophers became interested in philosophy of religion. Christians say these kind of arguments:

“Without suffering, Sally would have never accepted Christ.” The argument is that Christ is the overwhelming benefit to Sally’s suffering.

Or “If God had intervened and stopped the troops from ransacking the villages in this unpopluated area, the army would have been driven much father south, and gained much stronger forces.”

I certainly agree that there is outweighing benefits to some suffering on earth, and most atheists can agree with this. For example, the tears and frustration of school and university make earning a PhD all the more beautiful.  I can remember as a kid being told that I was stupid. When I graduated from college with straight As, it was because of the suffering I went through as a child and the hard work I did to overcome my undereducation that made the As worth anything at all.

But as a whole, I’m struck at how utilitarian this argument is, and I’m not liking it. An old professor of mine first got me thinking this way. Let me explain.

Utilitarianism, first of all, is a normative ethic philosophy that argues that the right course of action is right because it yields the least amount of suffering and the greatest happiness for the totality of society. This does not guarantee happiness for everyone, but just for the greatest numbers.  For example, in America we say that it is wrong to sacrifice animals. Since most people don’t want to see animals sacrified and because it contradicts science, the right course of action in America is to go see a doctor when one’s child is ill, not to sacrifice an animal. But for the Hmong tribe who fled Laos to California in the late 70s, early 80s, the fact that they could not sacrifice an animal brought them much sorrow.

In a similiar tone, when we come up with reasons that God allowed evil to occur in our lives, we often forget that not everyone has experienced an overwhelming benefit to evil.

For example, we might could argue that free will is a huge benefit to suffering. That yes, God could prevent a lot of evil, but he could only do so with taking away our free will. And even if someone has gone through horrendous suffering, maybe at the end of his or her life, having free will was still worth it.

We might also argue that patience and courage are  huge benefits to suffering, and without suffering, we would have no concept of courage. This is especially true of certain kinds of courage. If life was not fragile and my family and I could not lose our very lives, risk itself would be unknown to me.

It’s also true that sometimes if God intervened, something far worse would happen.

But I am not comfortable with any of these arguments because at its core, it’s utilitarian and it overlooks the minority.

You see, the organization I worked with overseas sponsored this orphanage in the middle of the jungle. The kids, or so we thought, were hidden. But one day the enemy came and burned down the village. You’ve seen pictures of these kids on my blog, but what you don’t know is that we don’t know what happened to these kids, or who is even alive. If God had produced rain leading up to the day this orphanage was attacked, he might have saved those kids lives. It’s also probable that if there had been a series of rain and storms the army would have headed further south, and struck far bigger villages that had resulted in the death of more people.

But you know what? I don’t give a crap. I don’t care if 4500 people more would have died. The 500 lives that died, or were scattered, that day matter to me. They matter so much to me that I was depressed a year from all this.

It’s also true that I might never know patience and courage had I never had suffering. It’s true that my parents gave me sorrow, my community gave me sorrow, and my church body gave me sorrow. I grant that life is still worth it to me though, that I’m glad I have free will, and I’m glad God is not always obvious to me. In my life, the fact that God is not always “obvious” and that suffering is immense is worth it because of the learning and growth.

But I can say that because I’m still kind of privileged. However, I’m not sure that these girls who were found in the jungle not too far from where I lived, who were 14 and had a two-year old by their rapist, who had never learned to talk and had been raped every day of their life, could honestly say that. I lived with some kids who were rescued way before 14, and whose lives are a shattered wreck.I’m not sure if they will ever see the sun shine, but heck, some people are never even safe for a day in their life. One of the huge burdens of working with rape victims is seeing how wrecked their lives are and realizing they are pretty “lucky” compared to others who never get out. It is depressing.

So no, I don’t think there is an overwhelming benefit to all evil and undeserved suffering.  Free will, courage, patience, and all may be really, really good, but it’s only good for the majority of people, if it’s even good for the majority.

You see, I believe that every life on earth is precious and dear to God’s heart. If God is real, he has an obligation to each and every life on earth, not just the majority. God can’t play a numbers game and get off the hook. William Rowe knows this, but I’m not sure how many Christians recognize that.

While I don’t have the answers for Christians, I can say that Christian universalists have an easier time because they believe that in the end, everyone will experience and taste the goodness of life. If you honestly believe in hell, you also have to account for the fact that some people will never experience any goodness at all, not on earth and not in heaven. You will also have ot say that tremendous suffering never amounted to a darn thing, at least for people who are sex slaves their whole lives.



You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 You can leave a response, or trackback.

  • I think the term ‘evil’ is highly problematic in that it allows a tremendous bias to be inserted into this argument. I think we are better served thinking of ‘suffering’ to be a much better defined term for the nebulous word ‘evil’.

    The bias that is inserted into countering this argument is human-centric. To get rid of the bias (we are not the sum total of life on this planet) let’s stand back from our own ego and self-appointed importance and think of how the biosphere works as a system to see if any of the arguments that excuses suffering (a better result later, a lesser degree of overall suffering, free will, yada, yada, yada) works to explain systemic suffering.

    None do.

    The biosphere is predicated on a predation/prey equation. Suffering is ubiquitous. THAT’S the system supposedly created by a maximally powerful, maximally benevolent loving agency. In human terms and practices, we call such a person who inserts suffering on one’s self masochistic and on others sadistic. I think that’s a pretty good clue about the nature of such a maximally powerful agency that designs a system to promote and sustain suffering.

    When asked, five year old children very often fix this problem easily by designing a system that has some kind of built-in shut-off switch for unnecessary suffering, but this solution seems too advanced for a creationist god capable of doing at least as well but not doing so.

    By choice, presumably.

    My ‘free’ will (or the hope of some ‘greater’ good) is hardly a reasonable exchange in moral and ethical terms for the untold suffering brought into actuality and experienced throughout the biosphere every moment of every day all days. I would have to be a sociopath in regards to all sentient creatures as capable of experiencing suffering as I am – equipped as they are with an equivalent nervous system and pain receptors – to think it an equitable price they had no choice to pay for my supposed ‘freedom’ of will.

    No, the problem of evil is fatal to belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, benevolent god. Such a critter simply does not comport with reality.

    • Lana Hope

      In philosophy of religion, we define evil as undeserved suffering. The philosophers could have used a different word, but since it’s the word I’m used to, I use it.

      I somewhat agree on freewill. It’s a whole another problem arguing that free will even exists. I’m agnostic on this at this point because I need to study free will more.

      • Yeah, the undeserved part I think diverts us too easily from examining the evidence we have, namely, that a prey/predator system is predicated on suffering. That fact means we have to do some serious philosophical juggling to relegate it into ‘kinds’ so that we can excuse the vast amount it as ‘natural’ and therefore not of the evil or undeserved kind. But that begs the question (Why do we have evil if there exists a maximally powerful and maximally good creator?). We – meaning life of all sentient creatures – suffer because we are alive and we are either killing or being killed. That’s why it’s important to recognize that suffering is systemic and not of the ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ kind. That’s simply a philosophical sleight-of-tongue trick to make something appear other than what it is for the purpose of linguistically manipulating an idea to fit into a puzzle of our own making (supposedly describing reality accurately) so as to declare that reality just so happens to fit our philosophical model of it (without considering how we first rig the philosophical model to require this particular piece and then declare we have deduced the model from the evidence of how well the puzzle piece fits it!). That’s the beauty of metaphysics: you can use it to ‘explain’ whatever you want it to! The cost, of course, is that this method turns reality into an innocent bystander used simply as a coached witness for the defense rather than the claimed judge and jury of the descriptive value of the model itself.

        The explanation for suffering doesn’t come from philosophy; it comes from biology. And the answer isn’t found by religious belief; it’s scientifically deduced from reality where we discover evolution in action. We suffer not because of the dictates of a top-down creative tyrant picking and choosing victims but because the neuroanatomy that produces suffering improves evolutionary fitness. And that’s a real explanation that can be tested against the evolutionary model in reality and shown to work seamlessly with it. No benevolent tyrant is needed.

        • Lana Hope

          Yes, I agree with your point here. It derives from the fact that scientifically suffering is intertwined with the way the world works. But the question a theist must ask is this: would there have been a better type of world that God could have actualized? And then, if there is not a better world type, was actualizing this world worth it? Would a “no world scenerio” had been better than this world? If you knew that you could create maximum happiness for everyone in the world but one person would undergo intense, immense and insane suffering, would it be worth it?

          • But the question a theist must ask is this: would there have been a better type of world that God could have actualized?

            And the first consideration is, How might we know?

            Until you answer this in a way that can extrapolated from this reality (ie what does ‘better’ in this context mean if not a reduction in suffering?) any answer you imagine is not knowable! The probability of this reality is P=1 because it is. That is your starting point. It is full of suffering. Suffering is. Does a world full of suffering demonstrate (fit the model you are considering) an omnipotent and benevolent creator?

            This question is answerable from evidence easily obtained from this reality: as creators of children, do we provide an environment for them to ensure suffering?

            The answer you seek is ‘No’.

            It does not take a PhD in anything to demonstrate in actuality why such an environment full of suffering is both harmful and reductive to the developmental potential of children to be therefore undesirable. In fact, we have ample evidence of parents who are not omnipotent strive to extremes to minimize suffering for their offspring in order to instigate benefits obtainable only from a suffering-dampened environment.

            You already know this, but you don’t seem to like the only knowable answer there is.

            It seems to take a PhD in philosophy to linguistically play with this reality enough to suggest otherwise in a way to appear somewhat reasonable. It’s not reasonable. We have a biological response to suffering we call empathy and compassion that demonstrates a species-wide call to reduce suffering in others. It is easy to compile evidence to show why this of benefit to fitness. It requires an unreasonable level of confidence in a faith-based methodology to believe that, contrary to our biological response to reality, systemic suffering caused by a creator magically must be ‘good’.

            This is thinly veiled Divine Command Theory in action.

            Once again, you appear to beg the original question; you seem to first assume this God must be omnipotent and benevolent as well as real and then attempt to shape reality by a nebulous linguistic description of it in order to fit the square peg of an omnipotent and benevolent god into the round hole of reality we share.

            A reality full of suffering (we can and do reduce to the best of our limited ability) is not imagined and its probability really is P=1 (you can’t improve on that!) and the evidence from this reality demonstrates systemic suffering. We know systemic suffering is undesirable because it first inhibits potential development and reduces actual. This compelling evidence demonstrates that a belief in an omnipotent and benevolent creator for a system of suffering is incompatible with the reality we share no matter what word games are played to get around this fundamental problem.

          • Lana Hope

            No I am saying that if God is omnipotent and omibenevolent, then we have a question of why there is suffering. It is currect to say that it is an if, not a given.

            You are also correct that counterfactuals are not verifiable. But then when Leibniz said this was the best of all possible worlds, Voltaire mocked that saying even he could conceive of a better world. We may not be able to verify other possible worlds or counterfactuals; neverthless, I don’t think those questions are not work asking.

            The answer to that question tells us a great deal of whether or not there is a diety. If there is a better world, then God has to a lot of explaining to do. Should there not be a better world, then the atheist is incorrect to assume that undeserved suffering is a problem for theism.

          • No I am saying that if God is omnipotent and omibenevolent, then we have a question of why there is suffering. It is currect to say that it is an if, not a given.

            This presumes a god with assumed characteristics not adduced from anything other than the imagination.

            You are also correct that counterfactuals are not verifiable. But then when Leibniz said this was the best of all possible worlds, Voltaire mocked that saying even he could conceive of a better world. We may not be able to verify other possible worlds or counterfactuals; neverthless, I don’t think those questions are not work asking.

            Of what possible benefit is there to asking questions we know are not answerable with anything other than pure speculation about imaginary possibilities?

            If there is a better world, then God has to a lot of explaining to do. Should there not be a better world, then the atheist is incorrect to assume that undeserved suffering is a problem for theism.

            If there is a better world? Better in what way specifically so that we may compare and contrast?

            The answer to that question tells us a great deal of whether or not there is a diety. If there is a better world, then God has to a lot of explaining to do. Should there not be a better world, then the atheist is incorrect to assume that undeserved suffering is a problem for theism.

            Look at your first sentence: we already know there cannot BE an answer that is knowable, yet you presume there is one! Not only that, but you presume that answer will then determine whether or not there is a deity… an assumption already made without any evidence!

            You then switch to the possibility that we can somehow come to know if there is NOT a better world which would then undermine the assertion that suffering (deserved or not) is not a problem for the claim of an omnipotent and benevolent god.


            We are one planet in galaxy of a one to four hundred billion suns with perhaps trillions of planets inside a universe of at least one hundred billion such galaxies. There is no way to answer any question about a better world with any degree of knowledge. The question is useless at producing an answer, which reveals why the tactic of asking it – and claiming the asking is important when it’s not – is to hide a god granted these characteristics from any accountability.

            What we do know is that we are a product of evolution on this planet in these physical circumstances. Speculating that there may be an omnipotent and benevolent creator is without any evidence to support the hypothesis. None. You use speculation, assumption, and a philosophical framework of presumption to take the place of evidence. The evidence of suffering effectively dismantles the legitimacy of the framework, which is why it is fatal to the belief in an omnipotent and benevolent god. Reality arbitrates the claim and finds it without merit. That’s why atheists raise it.

          • Lana Hope

            Okay, some conditionals are true because of matter of fact. For example, for every X, if it is light, travels at 186,000 miles per second. But we also have what we call counterfactual conditionals. We use these all the time without being able to verify them scientifically. For example, X would have won against Z in the election if Y had not ran in the race.You keep defaulting to all the things we know scientifically, and I’m agreeing with you. There are certain things we know. But there are also a world of things we cannot verify empirically because they deal with a set of circumstances about what the world might have been.

            Just as a disclaimer, I want to remind you that I am not arguing that God is verifiable. I am just arguing that when we speak of possible worlds, we are speaking about what could have been. Thus in another possible world, Z could have one the election because Y never ran in the first place, or individual S never had suffered because individual H had never been born. In neither case we can verify.

            If you are interested in possible worlds, google the philosopher David Lewis. To my knowledge, he was an atheist but did not see this as nonsense.

            As to why we assume that God is all powerful, it is first of all what theists believe, and thus if an atheist is arguing against theism, he or she will have to argue that god is not all powerful. I am not saying that atheists need to argue against theists – I rather suggest that they do not. But as an atheist, william Rowe has chosen to take up the task of arguing that theism is not plausible.

            Besides that, there are other reasons that God must be omnipotent. I know you will not agree with those reasons, and seeing as I’m not here to debate whether God does or do not exist, I’ll leave that rest.

          • All I’m trying to do here is point out that when we apply Euthyphro dilemma to this ‘possible’ world, we find compelling evidence – systemic suffering – from it that is incompatible to the causal claims of an omnipotent and benevolent god. Trying to get around this dilemma by positing imaginary worlds is not an exercise of knowledge where honest questions can be honestly answered by evidence adduced from it (to an extent that the answers adduced from it seem to fit the explanatory model offered – that there is a creator god, that this god interacts in this world, that this god is omnipotent, that this god is benevolent, that the systemic suffering we find on this world is compatible and fits with the existence of such a god). It’s an avoidance tactic.

            The many worlds approach is an exercise of first setting up an axiomatic argument in such a way so that its foregone conclusion (within the framework of correct logic) can then be imposed on reality as if descriptive of it. It’s that lack of connection to this world that I’m criticizing when presented with any answers that supposedly addresses the dilemma.

            This approach is one that Imposes a faith-based belief (a set of causal claims believed to be explanatory about this ‘possible’ world) in the guise of considering other ‘possible’ worlds. But there is no equivalent evidence to work with (with no evidence at all, to be clear, about the likelihood of these other supposedly equivalent worlds tweaked here and there to have different levels of suffering) and working with assumptions as premises that are not connected to the reality trying to be described, namely, this one.

            This is what I call bubble thinking.

            This bubble of thinking works only by disregard all contrary evidence from this world and calling the arrived at bubble conclusion about some hypothetical world to be an equivalent product of ‘knowledge’ against which we can then compare and contrast to consider which is ‘better’. It’s a method of thinking equivalent to wishful thinking and should be treated as such. It is a sly method from which the desired answer – any answer wished for – can then be deduced… fooling people into thinking the logical form makes the content descriptive. It doesn’t. We are no further ahead addressing the incompatibility of systemic suffering with an omnipotent and benevolent god. We’ve just avoided it.

            The game is rigged and we fool ourselves by empowering bubble thinking with legitimacy of any descriptive value about supposed agencies causing effect in this world. Said another way, this approach you use is an exercise of imposing a knowledge-bereft metaphysical framework divorced from reality on reality that presumes the ‘right’ answers are knowable even when they are incompatible with the evidence we do have from this world.

          • Lana Hope

            So you are assuming that since this possible world is full of suffering that god clearly does not exist. But what I am saying that just as there may have een no possible world where copper is heated and turns white (given the nature of heat and copper), there may have been no possible world in which there would be no suffering. I am not answering that question, given the nature of counterfactual conditioals I cannot, but I am merely saying that the answer changes my answer.

          • So you are assuming that since this possible world is full of suffering that god clearly does not exist.

            No, I’m saying that an omnipotent benevolent god cannot exist. The evidence for this world is clearly incompatible with that claim because of systemic suffering. All the other words used to deflect this evidence from being incompatible with the claim do not alter systemic suffering and our knowledge of it. Therefore, all the other words about ‘possible’ worlds do not address the incompatibility of this known evidence. That’s why suffering is fatal to the claim.

          • Lana Hope

            Well I think you are wrong. I don’t think systemic suffering discludes that possibilitiy.

          • Of course you wouldn’t! I see no wiggle room in your line of reasoning here to suggest there is any evidence in reality available to you – no matter how incompatible it may be – to dissuade you from believing as you do!

            This is not a surprise.

            And I think you do not hold your beliefs as a possibility equivalent to the hypothetical possibilities you suggest there may be on some distant world. I strongly suspect this approach you take is nothing more than an exercise of a priori belief rationalized and then philosophically dressed up to look as if as if a ex post facto conclusion to divert you from seriously considering the incompatibility of systemic suffering aligning with divine benevolence but with the power to change it.

            Look, if you came across some systemic and inescapable suffering of, say, children in care, I sincerely doubt you would justify doing nothing in the name of possibilities of perhaps finding a reasonable justification on some other world. You wouldn’t think that way because the suffering is right there in front of you and you know shifting the problem into some nebulous framework does absolutely nothing to affect compelling evidence in the here and now. That’s why I think this is nothing more than a word game to avoid the incompatibility systemic suffering produces to the claim of divine omnipotence and benevolence. You know better… but rationalize your way around facing it in the here and now.

          • Lana Hope

            If suffering was all I had to base a belief in God upon, I would not be a theist. But it’s not, and I don’t find the problem of evil to be such a “problem” that it outweighs the other reasons of which I believe.

          • Again, it’s not a general question about a god and whether or not you believe there is one ; it’s a question whether or not the Euthyphro dilemma reveals a fatal problem to a omnipotent and benevolent god. I do not think you would allow the systemic suffering of children (that we find active in this world right now) to be justified if you had it in your power to alter it. But you refuse to hold the god you do believe in to the same moral standard you yourself can justify because of the suffering! Yet you grant this divine agency that has the power to a special exemption for no other reason than because it is required to maintain the possibility of omnipotence and benevolence when it demonstrably fails to materialize and real suffering of real critters continues unabated! You yourself have a higher moral character in the quality and quantity of benevolence than such a god. I would think that realization might bother you.

  • jesuswithoutbaggage

    Lana, I especially like this post. I believe the Father is concerned with the good of each individual–not just the good of the many.

    • Lana Hope

      Yes me too.


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers:

%d bloggers like this: