Does the moral argument undercut the argument from evil?

January 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

Adam: It is often wondered whether evil gives reason to believe there is no god. There are many such responses to this idea. One is to suggest that although at first appearance suggests that evil ‘counts against’ god, further sober enquiry reveals that this is no evidence at all. Theism can provide a similarly good explanation. In a sense, we give ‘God’s alibi’ to the prosecution to the argument from evil.

Alternatively, and more recently, a popular response is that of sceptical Theism: Namely, the principle that we simply aren’t in a position to judge whether the evils we observe really count against God. We simply aren’t able to judge the matter. Instead of God’s alibi, we simply show that our trial could never reach a safe verdict in the first place.

Also, one can simply accept that the balance of evil in the world really does, taken alone, suggest there is no God. However, this only considers evil alone. Considering the rest of the available evidence, we observe that there are much greater reasons in favour of God.

However one common objection, amongst popular sources at least, is to appeal to morality itself to ‘trump’ the argument from evil. When Atheist offers an argument from evil, Theist says some variant of “Well, to run the argument from evil in the first place, you need some account of what good and evil is. Yet the only plausible source of value is God.”

Charles: I think this argument could just be another argument like fine tuning or whatever else designed to rebut the argument from evil: “Okay, so there’s a problem of evil, but I’ve got an argument from morality which is even better.” However, I think when this sort of response is offered, it’s more an undercutting defeater: that, until Atheist gives a good answer to the moral argument Theist poses, Theist need not worry about answering the problem of evil.

Adam: I’m not sure the moral argument can be deployed this way. Surely Atheist could say something like the following:

I’m not committed to actually believing there are moral facts or not. They either do or they don’t. If they don’t, then Theism can’t be true. If they do, then I can run my argument from evil. The only way you can avoid discussing the argument from evil is accepting a meta-ethical position anti-thetical to Theism.

Charles: I’m not sure that works, because Theist could give counter-offer, like this:

The problem of evil only works if there is some way good can be ‘free standing’ of God. Yet if my argument works, there is not only moral facts, but no way for moral facts to be free-standing of God. So there is no problem of evil: for to suppose evil is problematic just presumes I am mistaken as to the proper axiology.

Now obviously the moral argument is controversial: you might think naturalistic counter-offers for moral realism are far better, that Divine Command Theory (or similar) doesn’t work, or that anti-realist accounts are fine. But the point is, I guess, that these issues are prior to the problem of evil. If Theist thinks he can force the issue, he stops the problem of evil at the pass.

Evidence and prior commitments

Adam: My hunch remains that these arguments find themselves opposed, rather than one being prior to the other. Maybe we can begin to clear this up with a bit of probability: most people now offer evidential problems of evil, and I think most of us only have degrees of confidence in meta-ethics less than certainty.

P(gratuitous evil) is the main issue for the problem of evil, for most believe that if gratuitous evil, then God does not exist. Theist must believe (Moral realism & ¬gE). The moral argument is something like P(Moral realism | ¬Theism) is very low. Yet I don’t think Atheist needs to ‘sort out’ meta ethics to be allowed to continue the problem of evil – because I think, if the problem of evil is persuasive, this can rebut the moral argument. Because our intuitions about the given evils Atheist offers might well be prior to the meta-ethics. We might observe evils that we think God cannot be justified in permitting: we may not know what our views about moral propositions really are, but know that they should say (for example) Rowe’s fawn is unjustifiably evil.

Charles: Does that really work, though? Mightn’t we consider evil, yet realize on reflection that such talk would be senseless if God didn’t exist?

Adam: Sure. But again, I think most of us have a sense of evil before we have a sense of these ethical quandaries: more likely that we dismiss divine command theory in the face of evil than vice-versa. Or something like that.


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