#448

November 15, 2015

Consequentialism and the Problem of Evil

Dear William Craig

Imagine we are in what is now southern Germany a hundred years before the birth of Jesus. A certain bandit, Richard, quite lost to history, has raided a village and killed all its inhabitants bar one. This final survivor, a pregnant woman named Angie, he finds hiding in a house about to be burned. On a whim of compassion, he orders that her life be spared.

But perhaps, he should not have done so. For let us suppose Angie was a great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandmother of Adolf Hitler. The millions of Hitler's victims were thus also victims of Richard's sparing of Angie.

Perhaps, had Richard killed Angie, her son Peter would have avenged her, thus causing Richard's widowed wife Samantha to get married again to Francis. And perhaps had all this happened Francis and Samantha would have had a descendant 115 generations on, Malcolm the Truly Appalling, who would have conquered the world and in doing so committed crimes vastly more extensive and terrible than those of Hitler. Thus the immediate consequences of an action like killing an innocent villager can be swamped by the consequences thousands of years in the future, which no one could ever reasonably foresee. Maybe I met someone at a bar last weekend whose progeny 2,000 years from now will cause human extinction. That would imply that the worst thing I ever did in my entire life was refrain from murdering that bar acquaintance. This seems to imply that there's basically no way to know if you're making the right ethical decisions.

So how do you know then whether you're making the right ethical decision? It seems to be a bit problematic to know whether you committed a sin since your sin (such as a murder for example) could be the greatest good for the humankind

Thank you

John


Russian Federation

I selected your thoughtful question, John, because it has important bearing on two issues: ethical theory and the problem of evil.

First, your question exposes a fatal flaw in consequentialist ethical theories like utilitarianism, which says that our moral duty is to do those actions that will bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Sam Harris, for example, is a consequentialist, who says that we should act so as to bring about the greatest flourishing of sentient life.

As your illustrations show, this is a hopeless prescription, since due to our inherent limitations, we are simply in no position to make such assessments. So you’re right that on a consequentialist view, “there's basically no way to know if you're making the right ethical decisions.”

By contrast, on what is called a deontological view, our decisions are to be guided by certain moral principles, which we can know to be true without having to look into the future to see the outcomes of our choices. A theistic version of such a theory will see these principles as constituted by God’s commandments for moral behavior. We should, for example, in answer to Albert Camus’ question in The Plague, work to alleviate the suffering wrought by the disease because that is what we have been commanded to do, without speculating on God’s purposes in permitting the plague.

Now, of course, sometimes the application of these moral principles will require us to consider the consequences of our actions—for example, whom shall we treat first in the plague?—but that is still not consequentialism because the rightness or wrongness of those actions is not determined just by their consequences. Even if by the vicissitudes of history deliberately infecting someone with the disease should issue in some great benefit for mankind, it would still be morally wrong to commit such an atrocity.

So the theist has no problem knowing “whether you committed a sin since your sin (such as a murder for example) could be the greatest good for the humankind.” If you murdered an innocent person, you have broken God’s commandment and have therefore sinned, regardless of the great good that might come of it.

This has relevance to the problem of evil because just as we are in no position to assess the ultimate outcomes of our choices, neither are we in a good position to judge that God lacks morally sufficient reasons for permitting some instance of suffering in the world. God sees the end of history from its beginning and providentially directs a world of free persons toward His pre-visioned ends through the free choices they make. To borrow your example, by permitting someone to be murdered in the bar last weekend, God may have prevented the extinction of the human race 2,000 years from now. Notice that this is not consequentialism: it is not to say that you should have murdered the person in the bar or that his murder was not evil and a sin. It is to say that God can have morally justifying reasons to permit evils to occur. They are evil; but they are justly permitted. The assumption of those who do not see this is that “What should not be should not be permitted.” That principle is false. There can be genuinely evil acts, things which should not be, and yet we—and God—can be morally justified in allowing them occur.

When we think of God’s providence over the whole of human history, we can see how hopeless it is to speculate on whether God probably lacks morally sufficient reasons for permitting evils to occur. We are in no better position to make such judgements than we are to make judgements about the ultimate outcomes of our choices.