Thursday, August 8, 2013

Mizrahi on The Argument from Natural Inequality (Part One)

Traditionally the argument from evil has focused on two main categories of evil: natural evil and moral evil. Non-theists have well-known arguments for thinking that the existence of both kinds of evil provides reasons for disbelieving in theism. At the same time, theists have well-known responses to these arguments. Although I would hardly call the debate between both sides a stalemate, it is stale in the intellectual sense: I'm not sure there is much more to be learned about the reasons for supporting one side or another at this stage.

That's why I am intrigued by a recent trend in the philosophical literature on the argument from evil. The trend I speak of promotes the disambiguation of evil into sub-categories that either refine or beyond the traditional natural/moral subdivision. Proponents of this strategy of disambiguation typically argue that the traditional theistic responses to the problem of evil don't work for these more refined and carefully circumscribed categories of evil.

A good example of this is to be found in Moti Mizrahi's recent paper "The Problem of Natural Inequality: A New Problem of Evil". The paper highlights a particular kind of natural evil -- viz. the unequal distribution of natural endowments -- and argues that traditional responses to the problem of evil cannot account for this kind of natural evil.

Over the next two posts I want to consider the argument. I start today by setting out the dialectical framework in which the argument is placed, explaining the concept of natural inequality, and outlining a simple version of the argument from natural inequality.

I should say at the outset that, while I appreciate Mizrahi's efforts, I'm a little dubious about some of the claims he makes. I'll try to explain why as I go along.

1. The Evidential Problem of Evil
There are two argumentative structures used in the debate about God and evil. The first is the logical argument from evil, which is essentially an incompatibility proof of the non-existence of God. In its general form, it claims that the existence of God is incompatible with even one instance of evil. In its more specific forms, it points to particular kinds of evil (most often "gratuitous" evils) and claims that they are incompatible with the existence of God.

The second argumentative structure used in the debate is the evidential argument from evil. This one is oft-misunderstood. Many people think that the argument from gratuitous evils simply is an evidential argument, but this is not true. The argument from gratuitous evil is logical in its basic form:

  • (1) God, being morally perfect, omnipotent, and omniscient, would only allow evil if it were logically necessary for some outweighing good.
  • (2) Gratuitous evils are ones which are not logically necessary for some outweighing goods.
  • (3) Gratuitous evils exist.
  • (4) Therefore, God does not exist.

The "evidential" part comes with the defence of premise (3). After all, how do we know that there are gratuitous evils? The answer, at least according to most defences of the evidential argument, is that there are instances of evil that seem to be gratuitous and so, through inductive extrapolation, it is highly likely that they are gratuitous. (For more on the distinction between logical and evidential arguments from evil I recommend Tooley's article on the SEP).

I mention this because Mizrahi purports to offer a novel evidential argument from evil that focuses on natural inequalities. But I find myself slightly frustrated in that he doesn't explain how the inductive extrapolation works in his case, nor does he acknowledge the most popular response to the evidential argument, namely: skeptical theism.

At several junctures, Mizrahi fends off an objection to his argument by pointing out that the objection lacks a plausible evidential foundation. Now, in a way, that's a reasonable response: one should weigh up the competing evidential bases here and see which view is most plausible. But it also misses the fact that arguments from epistemic possibility can undercut the evidential argument from evil. Those arguments can't be defeated by simply claiming that they lack an evidential basis, though they can be challenged for other reasons, which I have discussed on this blog before.

Admittedly, this is a slightly nit-picky point. I wouldn't expect every article on the problem of evil to address every possible objection. That would be asking too much. Still, some acknowledgement of this very popular critique of evidential arguments would seem to be in order, particularly when it would affect the defence of one's own argument.

Anyway, I won't mention this again, but you should keep it in mind when you read through the rest of this series.

2. What is Natural Inequality?
Mizrahi's argument centres on the notion of natural inequality, so we must ask: what is natural inequality? Many of us will have an intuitive sense of what Mizrahi is on about, but we need to be more precise for the purposes of a philosophical argument, particularly when Mizrahi's own definition has, I believe, some counterintuitive elements.

We start with the big picture. We are all born into and constrained by circumstances and facts that are, to some extent, beyond our control. We are born into a particular geographical and temporal location, into a particular family, social class, gender, ethnicity and so on. We are also born with a particular set of natural endowments: hair colour, eye colour, cognitive capacity, stamina, physique and so on. Some of these things can be controlled to a degree, but others not so much.

One noticeable feature of our world is that certain people are more fortunate than others when it comes to the distribution of these natural properties. That is to say, some people are losers in the natural lottery. To use examples beloved by Mizrahi, people with microcephaly or with Tay-sachs disease are clearly losers in the natural lottery. They suffer from serious cognitive and physiological impairments; whereas those with normal physiologies are clearly winners (relatively speaking).

The starting point for Mizrahi's argument is that these comparative differences are intrinsically unfair. Why so? Because in order for comparative differences to be fair they must be distributed in accordance with an agent's desert. People should get what they deserve, no more, no less. The problem with the distribution of natural properties is that it is not based on desert. In no sense could you be said to deserve to be a woman, to be ethnically white, to be born with an extra chromosome, to be born with microcephaly or to suffer some genetically inherited disease. It would be bizarre to claim otherwise. If that's right, then the natural inequalities we observe are a type of evil.

So far, I agree with what Mizrahi says. But then he adds the claim that the undeserved distribution of natural properties is an evil in itself, irrespective of whether it causes or leads to increased pain and suffering. Here I think he goes too far. As best I can tell, comparative and undeserved inequalities are only evil if they are linked to some other bad-making property like pain and suffering; they are not evil in and of themselves.

To make the point, consider an example. Suppose you have a world with two people in it. Let's call them Bob and Michael. In terms of the distribution of natural endowments and properties, Bob and Michael are almost exactly equal. The only difference is that Bob's genetic makeup is such that he has one extra nose hair. Now, this is a comparative difference, and it is undeserved (how could you say that Bob "deserved" the extra nose hair?), so it meets with Mizrahi's definition of a natural inequality. But it clearly isn't intrinsically evil. At least, I couldn't make sense of such a claim. If this is right then undeserved comparative differences are not intrinsically evil. The argument from natural inequality can only really get going if the distributional inequalities relate to properties with certain bad-making features.

This correction may weaken Mizrahi's argument since he pushes the claim about intrinsic evil at several points. Still, I haven't rigorously checked to see whether this is indeed true, and I think there is much to the argument even with this corrected account of natural inequality in mind. So let's continue with it.

3. The Argument from Natural Inequality
With a clearer sense of what natural inequality involves (and taking into consideration my correction) we can formulate the argument from natural inequality. Mizrahi does not formulate it in his article, but I think the fairest reconstruction would be something along the lines of the argument from gratuitous evil given above.


  • (5) If God exists, He would not allow undeserved natural inequalities between persons.
  • (6) But there are numerous undeserved natural inequalities between persons.
  • (7) Therefore, God does not exist.

This is currently structured in a straightforward incompatibility form, but it could be refashioned as an evidential argument if we focus on the support for premise (6). This support could, of course, be based on an inductive extrapolation from available evidence, and this would, of course, convert the conclusion into a probabilistic one that would need to be weighed along with other arguments for the existence of God. Since Mizrahi claims his argument is an evidential one, I assume this is how he would like to run the argument.

Now as for its merits, I think premise (5) of the argument is pretty sound. I can't imagine a theist believing that God could allow undeserved natural inequalities (unless said theist adopts some form of Ockhamism, which is a possibility briefly addressed in part two). Indeed, ensuring ultimate justice and desert is an oft-cited reason for hoping that God exists (which, it suddenly occurs to me, might provide the basis for a response to the argument).

Premise (6) is the dubious one. Do we have strong evidence for thinking that the distribution of natural properties is, indeed, undeserved? Might the distribution be justified in terms of some greater good? We consider those possibilities the next day when looking at how the argument fares in light of free will and soul-making theodicies.

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