Gratuitous Evil and Moral Discernment
Dear Dr. Craig,
I should admit upfront that I am an atheist, as well as a Nietzschean and a deep moral sceptic. I find Hume's Is-Ought Gap convincing and, while I do not deny that I have moral feelings, I think it is more sensible to explain them as human psychological experience, not as "perceptions" of objective moral norms.
My question is about your response to the problem of gratuitous natural evil. In your debate with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong you responded to his hypotheticals about babies dying of painful diseases by saying that we lack the full scope of understanding to evaluate the moral rightness of God's non-intervention. Your argument makes perfect sense. We lack God's omniscience so we cannot judge whether allowing a baby to die of a horrible disease will somehow prevent a terrible evil or enable a great good. In fact, there are probably many constraints on our moral judgment in comparison to a perfectly good being!
But your response to the problem of gratuitous natural evil seems to create a problem for people who want to be moral. I perceive a baby dying of a painful disease as a moral evil and I judge God to be an immoral monster for allowing that to happen. But your response suggests that my judgment is in error: how do I know God does not have some greater reason for allowing that suffering? But doesn't that mean that all of my moral judgments are possibly in error? If I lack the knowledge and scope of cognition to judge God as immoral for allowing a baby to die of a horrible disease, am I not similarly unqualified to judge a human who can cure a dying baby, but chooses not to? Going even further, if I see someone about to die in a tsunami, should I try to save them? What if God is trying to accomplish some greater good by allowing that person to die?
In short, if we are in no position to judge the morality of God's actions or inactions, how are we in a position to judge each other's moral actions or to even make moral decisions in the first place? As the disease-stricken baby shows, my moral judgment can err. How can I know, then, when my moral judgment is in error? If I assume your response to the problem of evil is correct, then my moral sense errs quite frequently, usually in response to all the horrible natural evil surrounding us. Does this not render attempting to behave morally absurd?
I very much agree with you, Nick, that an atheist like yourself should be a moral sceptic and anti-realist. But you need to put yourself in the shoes of the theist and ask if he confronts the same problem as the Nietzschean. After all, it was the death of God that led Nietzsche to proclaim the advent of nihilism. But the theist has the resources to ground objective moral values and duties. There’s just no good reason to be a moral sceptic unless you’ve got some sort of really powerful argument for atheism, an argument whose premises are attested even more powerfully than the existence of objective moral values and duties. But what could that argument be? You yourself recognize that the argument from apparently gratuitous evil in the world will not do because of the infeasibility of proving that the evil we see is, indeed, gratuitous. So what justification is there for being an atheist and, hence, a moral sceptic?
Now you characterize my response to Sinnott-Armstrong’s claim that much of the evil in the world is gratuitous as follows: “we lack the full scope of understanding to evaluate the moral rightness of God's non-intervention.” This is a misunderstanding, Nick. Sinnott-Armstrong’s claim was that much of the evil in the world is gratuitous, that is to say, pointless or unnecessary. It is that claim that I am attacking. Given our historical and cognitive limitations, I think that we are simply not in a position to say with any sort of confidence that the evil we observe in the world is pointless or unnecessary.
I am not, however, defending consequentialism as a theory of ethics. According to consequentialism, the moral rightness or wrongness of an action is determined solely by its consequences. This is a horrible theory of ethics. On consequentialism if your torturing and raping a little girl would somehow ultimately redound to the benefit of mankind, then not only is this action morally permissible for you, but you are morally obligated to do it! Rather I hold that we have certain obligations to fulfill even if no good consequences result and certain prohibitions to obey regardless of the benefits that might ensue from flouting our duties. As a theist, I see our moral duties as grounded in God’s commands, which are reflections of His holy and loving character, not in the consequences.
As for God’s own actions, I don’t think that God has any moral duties to fulfill, since He presumably doesn’t issue commands to Himself! So it is meaningless to speak of the moral rightness or wrongness of God’s actions. What we can ask is whether His acting in a certain way would be consistent with His character. Would it be consistent with His character, for example, not to intervene to save a baby from dying of a horrible disease or someone from perishing in a tsunami? And I think the answer is, yes, God can have good reasons for not intervening in such situations and so does not act contrary to His character.
So suppose that I am a person who wants to do his moral duty. I am a doctor who can save a baby from dying of a disease. Do I have an obligation to do so? Of course, all things being equal. For God has commanded us, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I would violate this command if I did not try to save the baby. Of course, all things are not always equal: suppose I am in the middle of critical surgery and cannot leave to save the baby without losing the patient. Then love of my neighbor does not require me to abandon the patient for the baby. This is why moral decision-making can sometimes be so difficult.
Again, all things being equal, you should try to save the person threatened by the tsunami. (But if that means, for example, abandoning your own children to be drowned in order to do so, then you are not so obligated.) “What if God is trying to accomplish some greater good by allowing that person to die?” It doesn’t matter! You have an objective duty to fulfill which God has laid upon you. You do your duty and leave it up to God to work out the consequences. After all, He knew in advance whether or not you would try to save that person and factored that into His plan. It’s not as if you’re going to mess up His providential plan by intervening!
Now all of what’s been said so far is preliminary to your real question: “how are we in a position to judge each other's moral actions or to even make moral decisions in the first place?” The answer is that we do not discern our moral duties by trying to look into the future and determine whether the consequences of our action are on balance good or bad. Rather (i) God has written His moral law upon our hearts (Romans 2.14-15), so that we have God-given moral intuitions to direct us; (ii) God has revealed to us His moral law in Scripture, e.g., the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount; and (iii) God has created man in His image, so that every person is invested with intrinsic moral worth and therefore to be treated as an end and not a means. While these guides do not make moral decision-making always easy, I find that it is more often than not pretty clear what my moral duty is in most everyday situations. (It’s doing it, not discerning it, that is hard!)
In short, if consequentialism were true, then you would be absolutely right that we could never determine our moral duties. This is one of the most familiar (and devastating) critiques of consequentialist moral theories like utilitarianism. Some action which appears horrible in the short run could turn out to be a great boon to mankind, and an action that appears to be beneficent could turn out to be disastrous in the long run. We can be thankful that God has not abandoned us to such moral chaos but has given us resources to help discern His moral will for our lives.