Thursday, August 29, 2013

Disambiguating Evil (Series Index)

Depiction of the Lisbon Earthquake

As traditionally construed, the problem of evil proposes some incompatibility or tension between observed instances of suffering and evil, and the orthodox conception of God. The debate about this problem has trundled along for centuries, taking in many of the leading thinkers in Western philosophy. Though they all have their unique take on it, the debate has tended to settle around two distinct kinds of evil: moral and natural. The former arising from the misuse of free will; the latter from the lawful unfolding of natural events.

In the past month or so, I've been looking at a series of articles that try to go beyond the moral-natural divide. They typically do so by disambiguating evil into new or more precise categories. As a result, they perform a useful service: they move the debate into new territory and try to sidestep traditional responses to the problem.

Anyway, I thought it would be worth collating all these posts in one place. Who knows, I might add to it in the future. Does anyone know of other papers with similar themes? Please do share in the comments section.

1. The Problem of Natural Inequality (Mizrahi)
In these two posts, I looked at Moti Mizrahi's claim that the unequal distribution of natural properties (such as our genetic endowment) poses a particular problem for theists. The posts were based on his article "The Problem of Natural Equality: A New Problem of Evil".

2. The Problem of Social Evil (Poston)
In these two posts, I looked at Ted Poston's claim that there is a distinct category of evil - social evil - that cannot be reduced to moral or natural kinds, and that poses a unique set of challenges to the theist. I must say, of all the papers I looked at, this was the most interesting to me as it integrated game theory, classical theology, and the problem of evil in a highly illuminating manner. The posts were based on Poston's article "Social Evil".

3. The Problem of Evil and God's Authority (Maring)
In these two posts, I looked at Luke Maring's claim that God, qua authority, was specially obligated to prevent certain kinds of evil (namely: evils that fall within the jurisdiction of his authority, and which impact negatively on those subject to his authority). The posts were based on Maring's article "A New Problem of Evil: Authority and the Duty of Interference", which was an interesting fusion between political and religious philosophy.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Maring on Evil and God's Authority (Part Two)

(Part One)

This is the second part in a brief series of posts on Luke Maring’s article “A new problem of evil: Authority and the duty of Interference”, which appeared in Religious Studies in 2012. The article purports to offer us a new argument from evil, based on the notion that God, qua authority, is specially obligated to prevent certain kinds of harm.

Maring does not offer us a clear formulation of this new argument from evil, but in part one I suggested that the following might be thought to capture his reasoning:

  • (1) If God exists, he claims/has authority over all of us.
  • (2) For any X, if X claims/has authority over us, X has a duty to prevent, protect or (possibly) compensate its subjects for harm to their well-being that occurs within X’s jurisdiction.
  • (3) Therefore, if God exists he has a duty to prevent, protect or (possibly) compensate us for harm to our well-being.
  • (4) If God had a duty to do something, he would fulfill that duty provided it was not logically/metaphysically impossible to do so (because of his omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence).
  • (5) We frequently suffer harm to our well-being without being protected from/compensated for it.
  • (6) Therefore, God does not exist.

In part one, we spent most of our time looking at the account of authority that underlies premise (2). This is probably Maring most original contribution to the literature. He argues that traditional accounts of authority tend to over-emphasise the powers and privileges of authority, but under-emphasise the accompanying duties and responsibilities. In particular, they ignore the fact that authorities owe their subjects a “duty of interference”. This is an imperfect duty, which could encompass preventing, protecting or compensating for harms to well-being. I offered my thoughts on this in part one, and I shall say no more about it here.

My focus now switches to the more “religious” aspects of the argument. This involves two related lines of inquiry. First, is it really true (or probably true) that (3) follows from (1) and (2)? In other words, is it really true (or probably true) that God must be held up to the same standards as other, more human, authorities? And second, is premise (5) true (or probably true)?

In pursuing these two lines of inquiry, I follow Maring’s presentation, but I break the discussion down into four sub-sections. First, I look at the claim that human notions of authority cannot be applied to God. Second, I look at the “Eternal Life Argument” against premise (5). Third, I look at what Maring calls “direct” responses to the problem of evil. And fourth, I look at what Maring calls “indirect” responses to the problem of evil.

1. God and the Dikaiological Order
There is a feeling among some theists that human concepts, such as the concepts of moral rightness and wrongness, cannot be properly applied to God. This is a tempting notion, since we often think that distinct moral standards apply across different roles, but it is dangerous in its extreme form. If no such concepts were applicable to God, we would end up with a theologically empty concept of God. After all, our claims about God’s goodness and God’s worship-worthiness rely, in an often under-appreciated manner, on our ability to import human notions of value into our concept of God.

So the question is whether there is a more subtle, less damaging way to express the popular feeling? Maring mentions the work of Michael Thompson and Mark Murphy. They flesh out the popular feeling with the academic-y sounding notion of a “Dikaiological Order”. This is an intimidating word, but a relatively simple idea. In essence, the notion is that two or more agents can only make certain claims about and against one another if they share a common rule-based interpretive framework. Analogies help to make sense of this. I can only be said to foul another player if we are both playing the same game, for example football, within which my actions are recognised as a foul. Likewise, I can only lie to my friend, if we share a common language in which what I said is recognised as being false. If we do not share the common dikaiological order, we cannot do or say these things.

The suggestion that this might be a problem when it comes to the relationship between God and humanity, particularly as it pertains to moral claims. God is so different from us, it is said, that we are not playing the same moral game. It’s like a human blaming a lion for breaching a moral rule; or vice versa. This is relevant to Maring’s argument because that argument rests on the assumption that, when it comes to exercising His authority over us, God is playing the same moral game as we are. This is what allows us to hold Him to the duty of interference; to expect Him to protect our well-being. If it turns out that God is playing a different game, claims of this sort might be off-limits. Let’s express this more formally (numbering follows from part one):

  • (11) If God and humanity do not share the relevant (moral) dikaiological order, then we cannot hold Him to the duty of interference.
  • (12) God and humanity do not share the relevant (moral) dikaiological order.
  • (13) Therefore, we cannot hold God to the duty of interference.

Maring suggests that this argument fails to block his original inference. This is because premise (12) is dubious. If we look past the intimidating language, and feint air of sophistication this seems to bestow upon the argument, we are left with a radical, and extremely unpalatable claim. At least, from the theistic perspective. For if it is true that we do not share the relevant dikaiological order with God, then many claims that theists like to make about God fall by the wayside. Consider: we could not then be said wrong God by blaspheming him, or by disobeying his commandments; and he could not be said to exercise any moral authority over us,* or to rightfully punish us for wrongdoing.

In other words, Maring is arguing that if God wants to play the same moral game as us, he cannot avoid the duty of interference. That duty is an integral aspect of authority, and if God wants to exercise moral authority over us, he must be held to that duty.

Of course, many theists will balk at this. They will think it downright odd — or even “wrong” — for us to make such claims about what God can and cannot do; to hold him to any moral standards; to demand or expect him to shoulder a duty. But the burden of proof is on them to show why this doesn’t have unpalatable consequences for their concept of God. That, at least, is how I interpret the dialectic.

2. The Heavenly Compensation Argument
The previous argument tried to block the inference from (1) and (2) to (3); all the remaining arguments can be understood as challenges to the veracity of premise (5). As you’ll recall, that premise claims that harms to our well-being occur, and yet the duty of interference is not met. But how could we be sure about that? After all, the duty can be met in a few different ways: prevention, protection and compensation. So it’s at least open to the theist to argue that the duty will be met via compensation in the afterlife, not protection and prevention here on earth. Hence, just because harms do occur, it does not follow that the duty of interference is not being met.

Call this the “Heavenly Compensation Argument”:

  • (14) If God compensates us in the afterlife for the harms we suffer here on earth, then the duty of interference is met.
  • (15) God does (or probably does) compensate us in the afterlife for the harms we suffer here on earth.
  • (16) Therefore, the duty of interference is met.

I’ve laid this out formally, but Maring does nothing of the sort in his article. I think this is unfortunate because, if he did, he might have realised that his own response to the argument is weak.

His response is twofold. First, he attacks premise (15) on the grounds that there is no strong evidence the afterlife or for compensation in the afterlife. Fair enough; that might work in an evidentialist debate. Second, he argues that even if God did compensate us for earthly harms, it is still true that bad things happened “on his watch”. In other words, all the natural disasters, tortures, rapes and genocides that happened on earth still really happened, and God didn’t intervene. This line of argument might be viewed as a response to premise (14), but it’s not at all clear.

My own feeling is that Maring needs something much stronger than the whole “God still let bad things happen”-line to defeat this argument. What he needs to do is argue that post-facto compensation is not really an acceptable way in which to discharge the duty. Or, that it is only acceptable in extreme cases, for example when the authority was powerless to prevent the harm. Since God is not “powerless”, he cannot opt for the sub-optimal method of discharging the duty.

An analogy might help to make the point. Imagine a government that knew it was facing an imminent armed attack from an invading band of marauders. They have an army at their disposal, and a well-rehearsed defence plan, but they don’t want to put it into motion, not because they fear loss of life — they’ve done the force depletion calculations and the risk of serious loss of life is minimal, perhaps even nil — but because they don’t want to get their shiny new tanks dirty. Instead, they decide to let the marauders rape and pillage themselves to exhaustion, and compensate the victims ex post facto. Surely, in such a scenario, we’d say that the government was not properly discharging their duty of interference? Well, maybe something similar is true of God. The afterlife might be swell, but opting for it instead of preventing harms here on earth is a sub-optimal way of discharging the duty.

3. Direct Responses to the Argument
The next attack on premise (5) — though it may be more properly viewed as a counter to the argument as whole — is to offer some sort of theodicy or defence. We’ve looked at all the usual suspects in the recent posts on the problem of evil: the natural laws theodicy, the soul-making theodicy and the free will theodicy. One of the nice things about Maring’s article is that, rather than go through each of these responses in detail, he treats them as a collective. At least, this was nice from my perspective since I read Maring’s article after reading several other articles about the problem of evil, each of which dealt with the standard responses in considerable depth. I don’t think I could have handled another detailed analysis.

But, of course, Maring’s reason for treating them as a collective had nothing to do with maintaining my sanity. It had some solid reasoning underlying it too. His point is that each of these responses has a common structure. They all agree that the observed instances of suffering and pain are genuinely evil, but they that they are necessary in order to secure some greater good. In other words, they agree that the suffering observed may be bad, but that things would be worse if it didn’t happen.

Maring has a straightforward objection to all of these claims. The duty of interference brings with it a correlative right, and on any plausible account of rights — be they viewed as Dworkinian trump cards or Nozickian side constraints — rights cannot be breached or cast aside in the interests of some common good. Indeed, that is one of the attractions of a rights-based morality: it does not reduce to an unpalatable form of consequentialism. So Maring’s argument is that if there really is a duty of interference — which cannot be satisfied through post facto compensation — then the direct responses do not negate the moral wrong that God, qua authority, does to us.

This is probably correct, insofar as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. Not in my opinion anyway. It just shows us how debates about evil and the existence of God all tend to assume, or devolve into a consequentialist framework. This is for the simple reason that if God really did have moral duties toward us, ones that could not be sacrificed or set aside for the greater good, it would be almost trivially easy to disprove his existence. Theists aren’t going to give up that easily.

So they will, of course, respond to Maring’s argument by pointing out that, in extreme cases, we do set aside rights, and that it’s a good thing that we do so. This is either because competing, more important rights are at stake — consider: the right to life of the mother versus the right to life of the unborn child in the case of abortion — or because truly calamitous consequences would result otherwise. Surely, God might confront similar moral choices?

Maring has two replies to this. First, even if rights can be set aside in such cases, the rights retain some “normative tug”. That is to say: in breaching them we still incur a moral debt that must be repaid. For instance, we need to apologise to or compensate the person whose rights were breached (this gets us back into the Heavenly Compensation Argument). Second, theists haven’t actually shown that God’s violation of the rights is justified. All they’ve done is offer some hypotheses or guesses. Arguably, that isn’t good enough. Again, imagine if a human authority had some justifiable reason for breaching a right. Would it be okay for them to leave us guessing as to what this might be? No; surely they must provide us with a clear and direct explanation. Which brings us to…

4. Indirect Responses to the Argument
An “indirect response” is the name Maring gives to what are more commonly called “skeptical theist” responses to the problem of evil. I have covered these at great length on before, at one stage doing an entire series on the various difficulties that proponents of the response get themselves into. I won’t belabour those difficulties here.

You all know the basic drill. The problem of evil, even in Maring’s form, tries to infer from the available evidence that some moral evil has occurred. Skeptical theists respond by saying that, given the kinds of creatures we are (finite, cognitively limited, etc.), and given the nature of God (infinite, maximally great, etc.), we are not warranted in making that inference. We can’t assume to know about all the goods and evils that there really are and about all the entailment relations that obtain between them. What seems wrong to us, may not actually be wrong. We need to be more epistemically humble. Analogies involving parents and dogs are often trotted out to underscore this point.

Maring’s response is fairly standard, and indeed reiterates what was said above. It may be true that, for all we know, what seems like a breach of the duty of interference is not really a breach, or is not an unjustifiable breach, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a problem. For if that really is the case, God owes us some account of, or explanation for, the apparent breach. Any authority would owe us that. Why? Because we sacrifice freedom and autonomy to our authorities, and because we are vulnerable to their demands and punishments. Consequently, it is all the more important that they justify themselves to us. Dougherty’s discussion of skeptical theism and the parent analogy would help to flesh out this argument.

5. Conclusion
To sum up, Maring has tried to present us with a new argument from evil. The argument works from the belief that God exercises authority over us, and that as an authority he owes us a duty of interference. This duty is such that he should intervene to prevent, protect or compensate us for harms to our well-being that occur within the jurisdiction of his authority. But since such harms frequently do occur, and nothing seems to be done about them, it follows that God (probably) doesn’t exist.

In this post, we’ve examined several possible responses to this argument. We’ve looked at the popular claim that we cannot hold God up to human moral standards, and found that it commits the theist to an unpalatable concept of God. We’ve looked at the claim that heavenly compensation suffices to discharge the duty, and suggested that this, being sub-optimal, would not be preferred by God. We’ve also examined traditional theodicies and skeptical theist-style rebuttals and found them somewhat circumspect too.

On the whole, I think that Maring has provided useful food for thought with his argument. I like the fusion of a political theory with the philosophy of religion, and I have myself pursued such a fusion in the past. I have noted what I believe to be the weaknesses in the argument as I went along, and I have suggested some possible modifications and repairs. One fairly significant stumbling block for me, which I did not mention prior to this point, is the way in which the argument as a whole — and the account of authority in particular — rests on claims about what we would and would not consent to. My feeling is that God, if he exists, would not have to rest any claim to authority on what we would or would not consent to. Admittedly, this may be because I’m falling foul of the “Dikaiological Order”-fallacy, outlined earlier. Still, I thought I’d end with this since it might provoke some interesting reflections.

* He may exercise purely brute/physical authority over us, but that’s a distinct notion.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Maring on Evil and God's Authority (Part One)

Since I’m on a bit of a roll with respect to the problem of evil, I thought it couldn’t hurt to do another series of posts about it. This time round I’ll be looking at Luke Maring’s article “A New Problem of Evil: Authority and the Duty of Interference”.

Maring’s article presents us with an interesting fusion between the literature on the problem of evil and the literature on the political concept of authority. In essence, he argues that God, as traditionally conceived, has authority over us. Because of this he owes us a “duty of interference”. This duty requires him to take steps to prevent, protect us from, and/or (possibly) compensate us for certain forms of harm. But since we do suffer these forms of harm, and nothing is done to prevent, protect, or compensate, it follows that God does not (or is at least very unlikely to) exist.

As such, Maring’s article exemplifies the trend to which I pointed in previous posts. This is the trend among some philosophers of religion to disambiguate evil into more precise or refined categories so as to strengthen the problem of evil. To be honest though, Maring’s article only “sorta” exemplifies this trend. I say this because, although he focuses on particular forms of evil that God is specially obligated to prevent, the nature of God’s authority is such that this probably includes all varieties of evil. So it’s really not fair to say that there is any disambiguation of evil into more precise sub-categories; rather, content is added to our concept of God and this content is shown to heighten the problem of evil.

Over the next couple of posts I want to give a quick precis of Maring’s argument, adding some occasional critical commentary of my own in the process. In the remainder of this post, I will do two things. First, I will give Maring’s “New Problem of Evil” a more detailed outline. And second, I will discuss the concept of authority that he uses to motivate his argument.

1. The Argument from Divine Authority
One of the slightly annoying things about Maring’s article is that, although he purports to offer us a “new problem of evil”, he never actually bothers to specify the premises of his argument. Or, to be more generous, he does so in an oblique and opaque manner. One really has to read between the lines to get a sense of the overall structure. (Admittedly, this something that annoys me about virtually every article I read).

To correct for this, I’ve decided to reconstruct what I think his argument might be. I need to be very clear at the outset that, with the significant exception of the premises talking about the nature of authority, I’m not sure if Maring would endorse this reconstruction. I merely think it makes sense of what he says. The reconstruction is presented as a straightforward incompatibility proof of the non-existence of God. Obviously, it could be easily reformulated as a probabilistic/evidentialist argument against the existence of God. Indeed, I will tend to interpret it that way later in this series.

Bearing those interpretive caveats in mind, here’s what I take the argument to be:

The Argument from Divine Authority
(1) If God exists, he claims/has authority over all of us. 
(2) For any X, if X claims/has authority over us, X has a duty to prevent, protect or (possibly) compensate its subjects for harm to their well-being that occurs within X’s jurisdiction. 
(3) Therefore, if God exists he has a duty to prevent, protect or (possibly) compensate us for harm to our well-being. 
(4) If God had a duty to do something, he would fulfill that duty provided it was not logically/metaphysically impossible to do so (because of his omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence). 
(5) We frequently suffer harm to our well-being without being protected from/compensated for it. 
(6) Therefore, God does not exist.

I’m under no illusions about the formal quality of this argument. There is some slippage between the premises and the conclusions, but on the whole I think this could be resolved. I won’t dwell on it anyway.

Maring’s main goal is to defend premise (2) and to block the attempts to deny the inference from (1) and (2) to (3). Consequently, most of our attention will be on those aspects of the argument. Still, a few general comments about the argument are in order at the outset.

First, Maring does offer some defence of premise (1). He points to certain biblical passages, as well as orthodox beliefs about the nature of God, that seem to confirm that God claims/has authority over us. After all, God as traditionally conceived, directs us to do things, creates new obligations, and claims the right to punish us if we fail to live up to those obligations. All these things are indicative of a claim to authority. This will make more sense when we outline the concept of authority, below. For what it’s worth, I think Maring is right about this.

Premise (2) is obviously the key motivating principle for the argument. One thing I want to highlight here is that it is somewhat imprecise about how the duty is to be fulfilled. As we’ll see below, Maring refers to it, generally, as the duty of “interference”. But, of course, one can “interfere” with something in many different ways. Which of them count as satisfying the demands of the duty? I’ve suggested three possibilities in my formulation of the premise: one can prevent the harm, protect those who suffer from it, or compensate them in some way. The first two of these (prevent/protect) probably add up to the same thing. The third of them (compensation) is offered with caution. Later on in the discussion it will become clear that Maring doesn’t rate the compensation option too highly. But I’ve included it since some will appeal to it, and since doing so emphasises the “imperfect” nature of the duty.

Premise (4) seems solid enough, so I won’t say too much about it. That leaves premise (5), which is obviously the key factual claim. We’ll discuss that in more depth in part two.

2. Authority and the Duty of Interference
As far as I am aware, Maring’s PhD was in political philosophy, specifically in the concept of authority. So it’s no great surprise that his novel contribution to the debate about God and evil rests heavily on the importation of that concept from political philosophy into the theological arena. Indeed, it’s no great surprise that not only does he import that concept into the theological arena, he also imports his own version of that concept.

For Maring, anything that is to be properly called an authority must satisfy four conditions:

Conditions of Authority: For any X, in order for X to be an authority, X must:
(a) Have the power to create new obligations via content-independent directives; 
(b) Have the right to exercise the power to create new obligations; 
(c) Have the right to back up its newly-created obligations with the use of force (if needs be); and 
(d) Fulfil the duty of interference.

Conditions (a)-(c) represent the orthodox normative account of authority; condition (d) is Maring’s twist on things. He feels that the orthodox accounts over-emphasise the privileges of authority and say relatively little about the accompanying responsibilities. That’s where his twist comes into play.

Let’s go through the orthodox account first. I covered certain aspects of this before when I discussed Joseph Raz’s famous argument from authority. I think conditions (b) and (c) of this account are relatively intuitive. It is condition (a) that tends to be controversial. In brief, the feeling is that in order for something to be an authority — e.g. an authoritative government — it can’t just have the power to tell us to do what we already have an obligation to do; it must have the power create new obligations for us. Many philosophers cash this out in terms of the content-independence thesis. In other words, they hold that it is in the nature of authority that it can turn something into an obligation irrespective of its content. I tend to think that this is wrong, at least in its extreme form. The logical space of normative actions is made up of at least three kinds of action: (i) permissible actions, (ii) impermissible actions, and (iii) obligatory actions. My feeling is that authorities can indeed convert permissible actions into obligatory ones, but that they cannot convert impermissible actions into obligatory ones. So the content-independence thesis is only true in a restricted sense. I don’t think this affects Maring’s argument, but I thought I should mention it anyway.

That brings us to Maring’s twist on the orthodox account. As he puts it, authorities fulfill a kind of social role, and social roles generally bring with them powers, privileges, rights and responsibilities. He thus thinks it odd that orthodox accounts of authority tend to focus on the powers, privileges and rights; we need to balance this with some account of the duties of authority too. Consider some analogies. If I am a doctor, or a lawyer, or a parent, I have a set of rights and privileges: I am entitled to prescribe drugs, to represent others in a court of law, to make decisions on behalf of my children. But I also have a correlative set of duties and responsibilities: I must prescribe safe and effective drugs; I must diligently and zealously protect the interests of my client; I must not neglect or harm my children. Why wouldn’t it be the same for an authority?

Before I go any further, I should note that Maring may not be entirely fair to the so-called orthodox accounts of authority. I am, as with all things, a mere dilettante in this area, but it seems to me that “orthodox” accounts of authority frequently address the responsibilities and duties of authority. The preoccupation with the conditions of legitimacy for authoritative government, for instance, seems entirely bound up with the notion that legitimate authorities can only exercise their powers if they do or forbear from doing certain things. What is that if not a concern with the responsibilities of authority?This observation doesn’t affect the truth of what Maring has to say, merely its claim to fairly represent the orthodox account.

Moving on, Maring thinks that the positive duties of authorities are spelled out by the following:

Duty of Interference: If an instance of harm is (a) within an authority’s jurisdiction; and (b) seriously imperils the well-being of the governed, the authority owes it to its subjects to intervene.

This is a personal, directed duty. That is to say: the authority owes it personally to the people who are affected by its decisions, not impersonally. The authority would wrong us if it did not live up to the duty, and we have a correlative right against the authority in respect of the duty.

The duty is imperfect in nature: it is left open as to which actions will count towards its satisfaction. Adding some specification to the duty gives us the basis for premise (2) of the argument from divine authority.

3. Is there really a duty of interference?
Although the duty of interference is an attractive one, there are arguments to made against it. In first place, one can argue that the duty is not one that is uniquely possessed by authorities. On the contrary, everyone has such a duty, provided the political jargon is dropped (i.e. the phrases in relation to “jurisdiction” and the “governed”). If I know somebody is being harmed, and it is within my power to do something about it, surely I am obligated to interfere?

Maring’s response is that this objections doesn’t track our intuitions and attitudes toward authorities who fail to discharge the duty. Consider the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal. Clearly, it is a good thing that people found about about this, and interfered with the operation of the Church in an effort to prevent it. But would we say that people failed to live up to some duty if they did not find out and interfere? Maybe; but I’m not entirely comfortable with that claim. I don’t think that lay citizens failed in some moral duty by not doing more to prevent abuse, even if they could have if they were so minded. I do, however, think that the Church failed to live up to some moral duty in not doing more, and in actively suppressing the problem. Arguably, this is because the church, qua authority, has a special obligation to intefere to protect those whom it governs.

This leads to a second response. Perhaps it is true that certain types of authority owe a duty of interference but this is only because one of the legitimacy conditions for such authorities is that they protect their subjects’ well-being. For example, one could plausibly argue that government’s derive their authority, at least in part, from the fact that they protect their citizens’ well-being. Hence, it is not surprising that they owe a duty of interference. But this may not be true for all authorities. They may derive their legitimacy from different conditions and hence have different duties (or maybe even none at all).

This doesn’t seem like an interesting objection to me — not least because it assumes some odd dichotomy between legitimacy conditions and obligations — but it does prompt Maring to make a more interesting argument in favour of the duty of interference. The argument works as follows:

  • (7) All authorities stand in need of justification.
  • (8) A necessary (but not sufficient) condition for justification is that a subject would rationally consent to the authority if given the opportunity.
  • (9) No one would rationally consent to an authority unless the authority owed the duty of interference.
  • (10) Therefore, all authorities owe the duty of interference.

Premise (7) seems relatively uncontroversial. It would stand to reason that authorities need to be justified. Premise (8) derives from classic debates in relation to the social contract and political authority. In adopting it, Maring agrees with critics of Rawls (and similar theorists) that hypothetical consent is not a sufficient condition for authority. In other words, he grants that the mere fact that someone would consent to an authority is not enough to grant that authority its powers. However, he does think that hypothetical consent is a necessary condition for authority. In other words, no authority could be granted its powers unless people would consent to it. I think this is plausible.

Premise (9) is the tricky one. What reason do we have for thinking that people couldn’t rationally consent to an authority that didn’t owe a duty of interference? Maring makes the following argument. First, he claims that it is in the nature of authorities to restrict the normative space within which our lives operate. To put it more succinctly, authorities coerce us into doing or forbearing from doing things that we would otherwise have the power to do. Thus, when we become subject to an authority we give up some of our freedom and autonomy. Maring claims that no one would do this unless the authority also had a duty to protect them from harm to their well-being. Again, I think this is plausible, but I’m not sure that the argument is all that strong. It seems to me like Maring is merely restating and re-emphasising the point. I’d be willing to grant it to him, but, then again, I’m biased in favour of his argument.

4. Interim Conclusion
To sum up, Maring is trying to present a new problem of evil, one based on the notion that God, qua authority, has a special obligation to prevent certain kinds of harm. We’ve looked at the basic structure of the problem in this post, and we’ve gone into some of the detail about the account of authority that underlies it. The next day we’ll see whether the theist is able to respond to it.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Poston on Social Evil (Part Two)

(Part One)

This is the second part in a brief series of posts I’m doing on Ted Poston’s article “Social Evil”. The article is a contribution to the ongoing debate about evil and the existence of God. Traditionally, that debate has revolved around two categories of evil, natural and moral. Poston argues that there is a third category — social evil — which is distinct from these other two.

His argument for the distinctiveness of social evil was covered in part one. As we saw there, social evil arises out of collective action problems, such as those described by game theory. The example used in part one was a variation on the tragedy of the commons, involving a water shortage in LA. In the “game”, non-reduction in water use is shown to be an individually rational (maybe even moral) strategy, despite the fact that this will lead to a great deal of collective suffering. This suffering is not natural, because it is the result of human action; and it is not moral, because no individual is morally responsible for the negative outcome. Hence, it is a distinct type of evil.

Accepting that it is distinct, we now need to do three things. First, we need to see how social evil fares in light of three traditional responses to the problem of evil (natural laws, soul-making and free will). Second, we need to see how robust the phenomenon of social evil really is. And third, we need to consider social evil in light of an Edwardsian theodicy, which is the one Poston thinks most promising from the theistic perspective.

1. Social Evil and Three Traditional Responses to the POE
The identification of a new category of evil is not, in and of itself, worrying for the theist. At least, it is no more worrying than the traditional categories of evil. After all, theists have ready-made answers to the problem of evil, which they can surely trot out in response to the problem of social evil, right? Not necessarily. Poston considers three classic responses to the problem of evil and argues that they fail to account for social evil. They are: the natural laws theodicy; the soul-making theodicy; and the free will defence.

The natural laws theodicy — defended in slightly different forms by Swinburne and Reichenbach — holds that the existence of predictable and reliable natural laws, which may on occasion lead to suffering, is justified because such predictability and reliability is necessary for a range of great goods. For Swinburne, a stable set of background laws is necessary if we are to acquire the kind of knowledge necessary for moral responsibility (i.e. if we are to meet the “epistemic condition” for responsibility). For Reichenbach, a stable set of laws is necessary if we are to become free and sentient creatures (this is a more complex argument, one that I cannot summarise well in a short space).

Poston only deals with Swinburne’s version of the theodicy. His response is brief and pithy: social evil arises from collective acts of human agency, not from natural laws. So it is not clear that the natural law theodicy even begins to cover social evil. I think this is right, insofar as it goes. One thing I would point out, however, is that social evil is, effectively, a mathematical property of collective strategic interaction. The negative outcome in the tragedy of the commons is an equilibrium point — a mathematical “solution” to the particular game. Given this, a theist might be able to argue that social evil is a necessary by-product of a particular kind of human agency. And since God does not have the power to prevent such necessary by-products, we do not need a theodicy to account for it. The only problem with this response is that God probably did have the power to set the initial agency conditions which give rise to this by-product. Maybe there’s something worth exploring there.

The soul-making theodicy will be familiar to most. As proposed by John Hicks, the soul-making theodicy holds that a certain amount of evil is justified if it allows us to cultivate the virtues necessary for achieving communion with God. For example, to achieve compassion you must first suffer, to achieve tranquility you must overcome adversity, to attain courage you must first experience injustice. The list of examples could multiply.

Whatever about the good of soul-making, and the “necessity” of suffering in achieving it, there is an initial hurdle when it comes to social evil. Soul-making is an individual good: it is the individual who must overcome adversity, experience suffering and learn from their moral failures. But social evil, as described and defended by Poston, is a property of collective behaviour. What’s more, one of the key features of it is that individual action makes no moral difference to the collective outcome. Thus, it is difficult to see how individual moral growth is made possible by such dilemmas. Still, Poston isn’t completely dismissive. The Edwardsian theodicy, which will be addressed below, can be viewed as a type of soul-making theodicy, and Poston deems it worthy of serious attention.

The free will defence is, of course, the most popular and famous response to the problem of evil. It holds that free will is a great moral good, but that it has, as a necessary by-product, the (at least) occasional occurrence of evil due to its misuse. While there are general problems with this as a defence to the problem of evil (particularly in its evidential form), it is hard to see how it even gets off the ground when it comes to accounting for social evil. It is true that social evil is brought about by the aggregation of many freely-willed actions, but it is false that it is itself maliciously freely-willed. As discussed in part one, each individual can act rationally and morally from their own perspective, and yet this can still lead to collective suffering. So it’s not a by-product of the misuse of free will.

(Note: this is Poston’s response. I wonder whether my earlier comment about social evil being the necessary by-product of a particular kind of human agency might have some relevance to this debate too? I leave it as a suggestion.)

There are more fanciful arguments that can be made on behalf of the free will defence. For instance, one could follow Plantinga and argue that, although social evil is not explained by the malicious freely-willed actions of human agents, it is explained by the malicious freely-willed actions of supernatural agents. But this is an ad-hoc and explanatorily redundant suggestion. The nature of rational incentives, and the logic of game theory, give us everything we need to explain social evil. We have no need to postulate supernatural agents. Hence, this does not seem like a plausible argument.

If all this is right, then social evil seems to present a unique challenge to the theist. Is there any other way to account for it? Possibly, but before we see how we’ll briefly consider the “robustness” of the phenomenon.

2. The Robustness of Social Evil
In the example given in part one, social evil arose from the individually rational and morally blameless behaviour of many agents. This is the paradigmatic case of the phenomenon. But as Poston argues, the phenomenon is reasonably robust and can arise in non-paradigmatic cases. In particular, it can arise even if the individual behaviour underlying the social evil is blameworthy.

The argument is as follows. Moral evil arises from the misuse of free will. But to be classed as moral evil there needs to be some appropriate responsibility-relation between the agent performing the act that gives rise to evil, and the evil itself. To put it more simply, the blameworthiness of the agent’s action must account for the evil that actually results from that action. If the evil that arises is disproportionate to the blameworthiness of the action, then it is not truly an instance of moral evil. But, of course, this is what happens in the case of collective action problems: individual behaviour can be minimally blameworthy, but the collective consequences of this behaviour can be morally devastating.

Using Russell Hardin’s book One for All as a guide, Poston gives the example of conflicts that are based on in-group out-group labelling (or “norms of identification”). In these cases, tremendous suffering can arise, but this suffering is disproportionate to the blameworthiness of the individual behaviour. The reasoning is (roughly) as follows:

Being identified with a group can have personal benefits (e.g. being recognized as a member of the aristocracy in 17th century England), but identification brings with it norms of exclusion. 
Norms of exclusion can fuel serious and escalating social conflicts due to competition between groups. 
The individual decision to identify with the group (and not lose that identification) is blameworthy, but not so bad as to account for the tremendous social conflicts that arise. 
So, there is still social evil in these cases: individually blameworthy acts give rise to a disproportionate amount of group suffering.

Poston gives a slightly more detailed example of this — again based on an account found in Hardin’s book — from on the Croation War of Independence. Interested readers might like to check this out.

I guess I can appreciate where Poston is going with this, and, of course, I sympathise with the overall project. That said, I do wonder whether this stretches the notion of social evil ever so slightly. It seems to me that cases like this just mirror those in which minimally blameworthy conduct gives rise to disastrous unintended consequences. Such cases can arise even when there are no social/strategic interactions. For example, I might rush a drug to market, believing it to be wholly safe based on existing trials, because I am eager to make some profits. This is not morally commendable behaviour, to be sure. But if it turns out that the drug had unknown and devastating side effects, that could not have been discovered through further testing, am I really to be blamed for all the evil that occurs? I tend to think the epistemic condition for complete responsibility is not met in such a case. But then how do we classify that? I’m happy to say it can’t be explained away by appeal to free will, but it still raises interesting classificatory questions.

Anyway, this is a minor point. Let’s move on.

3. The Edwardsian Theodicy
As I said earlier, despite his initial dismissal of the soul-making theodicy, Poston thinks that the notion of virtue-building might provide the basis for a solution to the problem of social evil. In this respect he appeals to the work of Jonathan Edwards in The Nature of True Virtue and develops something he calls the Edwardsian Theodicy.

The central premise of this theodicy is that the truly virtuous person has a love for being in general. In other words, they don’t try to benefit particular persons through their actions, but rather they try to benefit all persons, equally and without prejudice. The claim is that such a general feeling of love is not compatible with individual non-cooperation in cases like the Prisoners’ Dilemma and the Tragedy of the Commons; the truly virtuous person is the one who cooperates, despite of the dynamics of the game. Thus, the claim is that being presented with such dilemmas gives people the opportunity to develop the Edwardsian virtue.

To put this more formally:

  • (7) Evil can be theistically justified if it gives people the opportunity to develop the virtue of general love.
  • (8) The social dilemmas from which social evil arises give people the opportunity to develop the virtue of general love (because individual cooperation expresses the virtue).
  • (10) Therefore, social evil is theistically justified.

Grant for the sake of argument the motivating premise (7). The question that concerns us is whether (8) is true. We have sketched a basic argument in its favour, but does this argument hold up to close scrutiny? Poston argues that it does not. To be precise, he argues that the two-player Prisoners’ Dilemma does support the Edwardsian virtue, but multiplayer dilemmas do not.

The argument in relation to two-player dilemmas is easily made. Take the following version of the Prisoners’ Dilemma. The numbers in the box represent the cardinal payoffs for the players. In order to account for the Edwardsian virtue, we assume that the truly virtuous person would choose whichever strategy yielded the highest overall social utility. In other words, they would sum up the utility for each player (including themselves) in each of the four possible outcomes, and pick the strategy which is guaranteed to yield the highest number.

In the case of the two-player game, this is very clearly the strategy of cooperation. Why? Because it yields an overall utility of 5 or 6, versus an overall utility of 4 or 5 for the strategy of defection. In other words, cooperation dominates non-cooperation: it yields an equal or higher overall utility, no matter what the other player does. Thus it is true that this social dilemma gives the player an opportunity to develop the Edwardsian virtue.

This brings us to the multi-player dilemma. The situation is much trickier here. A crucial assumption made when presenting the water shortage game in part one was that the threshold of cooperation needed to achieve the social good was vague. In other words, there is a penumbral region of cooperation/defection where a change to one individual’s behaviour will not make a difference and where it is not clear whether the social good will be obtained. This is a realistic assumption, though it is often left out of game theoretic presentations of the multiplayer dilemma. It also has a significant effect on the plausibility of the Edwardsian theodicy.

The problem is that once the threshold for realising the good/evil is vague, it becomes very difficult to express the Edwardsian virtue of general love through cooperation. Indeed, given the vagueness, individual defection might make things better off for everyone. This is because, for example, the individual could make the world a more beautiful place by using the water for their flowers. In fact, it’s worse than that. Not only is it possible for individual non-cooperation to be the virtuous move, it can be shown that individual non-cooperation is the rational strategy from the Edwardsian perspective.

Look at the payoff matrix below. It represents the ordinal payoffs to a randomly selected player (player i) given three possible states of the world: (a) we are below the threshold of cooperation; (b) we are in the penumbral region; and c) we are above the threshold. As can be seen, granting these three possibilities, and granting that the aim is to secure the highest overall social utility, it is true that individual defection is the rational strategy. It dominates defection across all three possibilities.

The one aspect of this that may niggle is the claim, represented by the payoffs, that defection dominates cooperation when we are below the threshold. The reason for this is that if we are below the threshold, we don’t know for sure whether our decision to cooperate will make the critical difference. If it does, then that’s all well and good, but if it doesn’t the social evil isn’t going to be avoided and we miss the opportunity to make the world a more beautiful place. As Poston puts it:

The reason this situation arises is that each individual can bring about a Pareto improvement of resources by defecting. Since an individual doesn’t affect the social outcome but does affect some item of value in the world, each individual faces the prospect of a wasted sacrifice and a loss of some item of value by cooperating.

But, of course, since defection is the rational strategy, the social evil will arise. Thus, being truly virtuous doesn’t help us to avoid evil. The Edwardsian theodicy looks less promising in this light.

4. Conclusion
To sum up, there’s a lot to be said for Poston’s article. It highlights an interesting social phenomenon; it identifies and defines it as a new type of evil; it argues, somewhat persuasively, that traditional theodicies fail to account for that type of evil; it identifies a new type of theodicy; and it argues that, promising though it may be, this new theodicy also fails to account for the social variety of evil.

Two critical points to conclude. First, as pointed out by Chris King in the comments to part one, although Poston criticises others for making unrealistic assumptions about social dilemmas, it may be that his analysis incorporates an unrealistic assumption of its own. Specifically, it assumes that individual decisions to cooperate/defect are made simultaneously and independently from the decisions of others. This is a classic assumption in game theoretical modelling, but it is often socially unrealistic. If it is true that individual decisions influence other decisions, then it is much less clear that (a) the tragic elements of social evil identified by Poston will arise; and (b) that social evil is completely distinct from moral evil. If a player knows he might influence others through his actions, then he might be doing something morally wrong/right by defecting/cooperating.

The other point, less important than the first, is that although Poston thinks his analysis of the multiplayer dilemma defeats the Edwardsian theodicy, I’m not so sure. I have to say, I’m not too enamoured by the theodicy in the first place, but leaving that aside it seems to me that Poston’s argument relies on the belief that expressing true virtue must prevent evil if the theodicy is to be successful. As he puts it:

Ultimately, the reason the Edwardsian defense fails is that each truly virtuous person can know that her act will bring about a better world but the collective result of each person making a better world is unintended disaster. Even with the truly virtuous, the road to hell is paved with Pareto improvements.

But that seem slightly off to me. Surely, the whole point of a theodicy is to justify the occurrence of evil, not to point to ways in which it can be prevented. Even if the Edwardsian virtue leads to suffering, we still get a chance to express and develop it through our individual action. If the virtue is sufficiently worthwhile, that might be enough. What’s troubling in this case is the obvious inconsistency between the expression of the virtue (viz. defection in the multiplayer PD) and the outcome. Clearly, the outcome does nothing for human being in general, even if the individual actions that led to that outcome were intending it. Maybe that’s where the real problem lies.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Poston on Social Evil (Part One)

(It makes sense if you read the post)

The argument from evil traditionally works with two categories of evil: (i) natural evil, i.e. evil that is brought about by the lawful unfolding of natural processes; and (ii) moral evil, i.e. evil that is brought about by the morally responsible conduct of free will-possessing agents. But what if there was a third category of evil, one lying between the natural and the moral? In other words, what if evil resulted neither from the lawful unfolding of natural process, nor from the morally responsible conduct of free will-possessing agents?

Ted Poston’s article “Social Evil” — which appeared a couple of years back in Oxford Studies in the Philosophy of Religion — argues that there is. It claims that there is such a thing as social evil, i.e. evil that results from the problems of collective action. A collective action problem arises when private individuals, each acting rationally from their own perspective, can bring about socially sub-optimal outcomes. Because the outcome in such a case is the result of collective action, it cannot be categorised as natural evil; and because no one individual is morally responsible for the outcome, it cannot be categorised as moral evil. Consequently, it is a distinct category of evil, one which must be considered independently of the traditional categories.

Or so the argument goes. Over the next couple of posts, I want to take a look at what Poston has to say about all this. I do so as part of ongoing mini-series on the disambiguation of evil, which is a trend I’ve observed in the literature on the problem of evil. I want to say at the outset that I started off being pretty sceptical of Poston’s claim to have identified a distinct category of evil. But I ended up persuaded that there is something unique about social evil. I hope to explain my initial scepticism, and the reason for my conversion, in what follows.

In the remainder of this post, we'll cover Poston’s initial characterisation and defence of social evil. This will require us to consider an example of the phenomenon, along with his responses to critics who claim that it is just another form of natural or moral evil.

(Interpretive Note: “Evil” is assumed throughout this post and the next to be any form of pain or suffering.)

1. So what is Social Evil anyway?

The phenomenon of social evil is best illustrated by reference to game theoretical examples. We can start with the simplest, and most famous, game theory puzzle of them all: the Prisoners’ Dilemma. You all know the set-up. Two accomplices, arrested on the same charge, both offered the same deal. If they confess and give-up their accomplice, they can go free while their accomplice spends ten years in jail. If they remain silent, and their accomplice gives them up, it’s the same thing only in reverse. If they both remain silent, they both get two years. And if they both confess, they both get five years. What should they each, individually, do? The four possible outcomes are illustrated in the diagram below (I won’t explain how to read this diagram now - see my posts on game theory for more details).

The classic game theoretical analysis is that, if you were one of the prisoners, you should confess. The reason is that confession strictly dominates remaining silent. That is to say: confessing yields a better outcome for you no matter what your accomplice does. It’s true, of course, that staying silent can yield a better outcome, but that’s contingent on what the other prisoner does. You can’t rely on him/her remaining silent. Therefore, you’re better off confessing. The only problem with this analysis is that your opponent will reason in the same way, and so we can expect the outcome of the game to be that both prisoners confess. Collectively speaking, this is worse than would have been the case if both remained silent. Hence, the collective outcome in this game is sub-optimal, despite the rational behaviour of each player.

The prisoners’ dilemma yields a modicum of evil. There is, after all, the pain and suffering of five years in prison. But, to be clear, the two-player prisoners’ dilemma does not quite capture the phenomenon of social evil. For that, we need to switch to massively multiplayer versions, wherein hundreds and thousands of players (maybe even millions) interact. The classic illustration of this is some form of the tragedy of the commons.

Poston uses the following illustration. Suppose the city of LA is undergoing a water shortage. As long as a significant proportion of the population reduces their water consumption — e.g. by not washing their cars, not watering their flowers, ensuring all taps are turned off etc. — the problem can be averted. Otherwise, a great deal of suffering and hardship will result. Structurally, the game is similar to that of the prisoners’ dilemma. There are many more players in this version, of course, but once again the collective outcome in such a scenario is likely to be sub-optimal.

The problem is as follows. Because a significant proportion of the population needs to reduce their water usage if the problem is to be averted, it is doubtful that it is rational for any individual to do so. For example, if I were one of the citizens, I might reason thusly: by not using any water I will not avoid the problem (because my individual action is not causally sufficient for avoiding the shortage); but by using it to water my flowers I can add to the aesthetic value in the world; therefore, it is better that I use the water than that I not use it. The problem, of course, is that every citizen can reason in roughly the same manner and thus the equilibrated in such a scenario is non-reduction in water usage. This leads to social evil, i.e. pain and suffering on a large scale.

To be clear, the water shortage example is just that: an example. It illustrates the logic underlying many collective action problems, from healthcare provision to overfishing to global warming. Governments frequently struggle to provide rules and regulations that alter the incentive structures in such “games”. Their hope is that this will make collective cooperation the rational choice, but the rules and regulations are not always effective. Poston’s point is that it is disconcerting — from a theistic perspective — that social interaction exhibits this feature.

Remember, Poston’s claim is that the outcome in the water shortage game is a distinct type of evil, one that is neither natural nor moral in nature. This is where my initial scepticism of his argument comes into play. When I first encountered the idea, I was convinced that social evil simply reduced to moral evil. If we are aware that the structure of the social dilemma is such that if everyone uses the water great suffering will come about, then we are obligated not to use it. To do otherwise would be to knowingly contribute to an evil end.

Poston seems to be able to respond to my scepticism, as we are about to see.

2. Is it really a distinct type of evil?
There are three initial concerns one might have about the novelty of Poston’s proposal. First, one might worry that social evil is really a sub-species of natural evil, and hence not distinct from that already-debated category. Second, and slightly more subtly, one might worry that the classic game-theoretic analysis of rational behaviour in such cases is flawed; that people are stupid not to cooperate. And third, one might worry that social evil is a sub-species of moral evil. This last worry, of course, is my own.

I won’t spend too much time on the first of these worries. The complaint, in essence, is that problems like the one exhibited in the water shortage game are brought about by the scarcity of natural resources, and this scarcity is a result of natural evil, nothing else. The obvious reply to this is that although scarcity is a feature of the natural world, the problems that result from it — particularly in the case of a renewable resource like water — are hugely exacerbated by failures in collective action.

The second concern gets into some technical aspects of rational choice and game theory. The complaint is that the decision to defect in these collective actions problems is a manifestation of human stupidity, which is a subtle form of natural evil. The response to this is complex. In essence, Poston argues that the complaint is driven by misleading intuitions about what the individual causes or brings about through their actions. Specifically, the complaint is driven by the belief that the individual’s choice somehow causes the sub-optimal outcome and is stupid for that reason. But this is a “gross misunderstanding” of the logic of the water shortage game. If, say, it takes somewhere between 300,000 and one million people to bring about the problem of water shortage, then one more or one less non-cooperator won’t make any difference. This is true for any case in which the threshold number needed to realise a particular outcome is vague. Thus, the individual’s decision not to cooperate makes no causal difference and is not irrational or stupid for that reason. Now, there are some technical rebuttals or alternatives to this that Poston considers in the article, but I’ll skip those because I agree with his take on it.

This brings us, at last, to the third complaint: that social evil is simply a sub-species of moral evil. This complaint relies on the notion that the individual’s choice to use the water in such a game is morally reprehensible. The easiest way to defend this claim would be to argue that the individual was knowingly and causally responsible for the negative outcome. But this defence is not available. As we just saw, the structure of the game is such that no individual choice is causally necessary or sufficient for the outcome. Hence, a different account of the moral link between the individual’s choice and the evil outcome is needed. Poston considers three possibilities.

The first relies on the Kantian principle of universalisation. According to Kant, it is morally wrong to act on a maxim of the will that is not universalisable. And since individual non-cooperation in the water shortage game is not universalisable, this allows us to make the following argument:

  • (1) It is morally evil to act on a maxim of the will that is not universalisable.
  • (2) Individual non-cooperation in the water shortage game is not universalisable.
  • (3) Therefore, it is morally evil not to cooperate in the water shortage game.

(And, obviously, what applies to the water shortage game applies to all similarly-structured social dilemmas)

Premise (2) is clearly true. Although I may decide to water my flowers on the ground that this makes the world a more aesthetically beautiful place, I clearly could not will that everybody follow suit. If they did, we would have massive water shortage and much suffering would result. So the problems with the argument must lie in premise (1). And, sure enough, Poston is keen to rebut it. It is simply not true that non-universalisable actions are morally evil. For example, it is surely morally good (or at least permissible) that I decide to become a doctor. But it is also, surely, bad if everyone decides to do the same thing. Society requires some specialisation of labour in order to thrive. Thus, the universalisation case for moral evil is not particularly persuasive.

The second argument for moral evil relies on a rule-utilitarian principle of permissible behaviour. According to the rule utilitarian, the right act in any given decision problem is the one based on an optimific rule, i.e. the rule that yields the best outcomes overall. The claim would then be that universal cooperation is the optimific rule in this scenario. This gives us the following argument:

  • (4) It is morally evil to act in a manner that is not endorsed by the optimific rule in any given decision problem.
  • (5) Individual non-cooperation is not endorsed by the optimific rule in the water shortage game; universal cooperation is.
  • (6) Therefore, it is morally evil not to cooperate in the water shortage game.

Whatever the merits of rule utilitarianism, this argument fails because premise (5) is false. One of the key features of multiplayer prisoners’ dilemmas is that there is no unique optimific rule, i.e. a rule that, if followed by everyone, yields the best overall outcome. No one individual makes a difference to the social outcome and, indeed, individual non-cooperation can make us better off overall.

That brings us to the third argument for moral evil, this one relying on another Kantian principle: the “ends-not-means” principle. According to this principle, it is morally evil to treat another autonomous human being as a means to some desirable end and not as an end in themselves. Maybe — just maybe — my decision to water my flowers treats everyone else as means to an end, not as ends in themselves:

  • (7) It is morally evil to treat another as a means to an end, not as an end in themselves.
  • (8) Individual non-cooperation in the water shortage game treats others as means not as ends.
  • (9) Therefore, it is morally evil not to cooperate in the water shortage game.

Again, whatever the merits of the motivating principle, the second premise in this arguments looks circumspect. One can kinda see an argument in its favour: to justify my decision to water my flowers, I have to rely on the goodwill of a sufficient majority of others not to follow suit. Thus I am, in a sense, using them as a means to a more desirable end. But, as Poston points out, because of the nature of the game, my decision to do so does not actually interfere, in a problematic way, with their preferred ends, and is, in fact, consistent with viewing them as fully autonomous human beings. It is not at all like the case of the slave-master who coerces another into doing something that only benefits the slave-master. My decision to water my plants may benefit others, and does not involve coercion or manipulation of any kind.

Poston concludes this portion of his article by pointing out that, despite all the arguments just made, many people will persist in thinking that individual non-cooperation in these cases is morally evil. This is because they think there is some connection between the individual decision and the morally opprobrious outcome. My initial scepticism stemmed from this view. I thought that there was some “knowledge”-connection between the individual act and the social outcome that made that act morally questionable, perhaps on the grounds that they knew their defection raised the probability of the negative outcome. But as Poston points out:

This is a failure to realize the logic of a multiplayer prisoner’s dilemma. An individual doesn’t affect the social outcome. Further, an individual’s change of strategy doesn’t affect the probability that the social outcome is achieved. Removing one grain of sand from the beach doesn’t affect the probability that the beach has enough sand to make a sand castle.

3. Conclusion
To sum up, the traditional debate about evil and God has revolved around two distinct categories of evil: natural and moral. The claim being made by Poston is that there is a third category — social evil — which is neither the product of natural laws, nor the result of morally responsible individual action. As we have just seen, this claim looks pretty robust. Social evil doesn’t seem to be a sub-species of natural or moral evil.

If we accept that basic claim, the next topic to consider is whether social evil can be accounted for by the traditional responses to the problem of evil. We’ll be looking at that the next day.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

My New Paper on the Death Penalty

A little over a year ago, I posted a review and exposition of the central argument from Matthew Kramer's book The Ethics of Capital Punishment. I subsequently wrote and submitted a longer paper about Kramer's argument to the journal Criminal Law and Philosophy. This paper has now been accepted for publication and the final pre-print copy of it can be accessed:

Enjoy! (I should add: the final published version will, I'm led to believe, feature a response from Kramer himself. No doubt he'll take me to task for everything I've said.)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Mizrahi on the Argument from Natural Inequality (Part Two)

(Part One)

The argument from evil remains the most important anti-theistic argument, but as is true of many philosophical arguments it has been discussed and debated ad nauseum for several thousand years. So much so that it is often difficult to see any space for novel insights. Still, there are some encouraging trends, such as the recent trend to disambiguate between different types evil and argue that they present newer challenges to the theistic position.

Moti Mizrahi's "The Argument from Natural Equality: A New Evidential Problem of Evil", which is the subject of this series of posts, is a good exemplar of this trend. The central claim in Mizrahi's article is that a certain kind of natural evil -- viz. the distribution of natural properties -- presents a serious problem for theistic belief. "Natural property" is understood to be any property, possessed by the individual, which is bestowed on him or her from birth. A good example, would be an individual's genetic constitution.

The problem from the theistic perspective is that the distribution of such properties is not based on considerations of desert, and yet can have a serious impact on the individual's overall quality of life. There is, thus, something "evil" about the pattern of distribution that we observe. (One interpretive caveat here is that although Mizrahi thinks that undeserved distributional inequalities are intrinsically evil, I reject that view. I think some undeserved distributional inequalities are morally neutral. I gave the example in part one of an inequality in the number of nose hairs between two individuals. Although this inequality is not based on considerations of desert (nobody "deserves" to have more nose hairs than another), it is not intrinsically evil. At least, I can't see how it is. This leads me to believe that undeserved distributional inequalities are only evil if the properties being distributed are linked to other bad-making properties. I'll be working with that view, as opposed to Mizrahi's own, for the remainder of this series. This interpretation undercuts Mizrahi's claim to novelty.)

The argument arising from this, which we ended up with the last day, reads as follows:

  • (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.

The goal for today's post is to see how the argument fares in light of two classic responses to the problem of evil: (i) the free will defence; and (ii) the soul-making theodicy. Before that, however, another short interpretive comment is in order.

1. How to Construe the Argument from Natural Inequality
At the end of the previous post, I suggested that premise (5) was fairly secure and that premise (6) was the primary focus for our critical energies. Commenter Joel suggested that this was wrong; that premise (6) was reasonably secure (based on my analysis) and that premise (5) was the critical one. The argument being that the typical theist response is going to suggest that undeserved natural inequalities are justified in light of some greater good.

In retrospect, Joel is right about this. I was wrong to claim that premise (5) is secure and premise (6) is the only one that will be disputed. That said, it's not true that one or the other premise is more important (to be clear, Joel wasn't claiming that this was the case). Quite the contrary. Both are important. As with every problem of evil, both premises are open to doubt. One can argue that God allows the particular kind of evil because it is outweighed by some greater good; or one can argue that what appears (at a first glance) to be evil is not really evil.

Both strategies are on display below. In particular, the free will defence can be viewed as an attack on premise (5) or (6). The former on the grounds that free will outweighs the evil of undeserved inequalities; the latter on the grounds that natural inequalities are actually outcomes of free will and hence not undeserved. Because the responses can work like this, I'm going to construe them as independent counter-arguments, not directly targetted at particular premises. Let's get into this now.

2. The Free Will Defence
The claim that free will is such a stupendously important good that it outweighs the necessary evil that eventuates from its misuse is common among theists. One can see the attraction. If free will is so stupendously important, it provides a ready excuse for much of the evil we see in the world. Much, but not all. For even if we grant that free will is as wonderful as many theists make it out to be, natural evil -- that is, evil arising from the lawful unfolding of natural processes -- seems not to be covered by it. After all, the lawful unfolding of natural processes is not dictated by the free will of any agent (except maybe God himself).

Given that natural inequalities are just a sub-species of natural evil, one might be inclined to think that this rebuttal works just as well for them as it does for other kinds of natural evil. Nevertheless, Mizrahi considers three possible reasons for thinking that natural inequalities are different. The first reason is that natural inequalities are only evil because society (thanks to a network of freely willed decisions) has determined that certain natural properties are advantageous whereas others are disadvantageous; the second reason is that people can, through their freely willed actions, overcome natural disadvantages and hence, ultimately, the evil in question is a consequence of free will; and the third reason is the rather more fanciful, Plantinga-esque argument that natural inequalities are due to the freely willed decisions of supernatural agents (e.g. demons).

If we could formalise all this into an argument, it might look like this:

  • (8) If evils are the result of free will, their existence provides no evidence against the existence of God.
  • (9) Natural inequalities are the result of free will because: (a) what counts as a natural advantage/disadvantage is socially determined; or (b) you can overcome natural disadvantage through the exercise of free will; or (c) free, supernatural agents, are responsible for them.
  • (10) Therefore, the existence of natural inequalities provides no evidence against the existence of God.

Mizrahi thinks premise (9) of this argument is deeply flawed. Before we get into his rebuttals, however, I just want to note that I don't find premise (8) to be particularly persuasive either. I'm not convinced that free will is so stupendously good, nor, indeed, that it is even a coherent concept (especially in its countercausal form).

Leaving that aside, let's look at premise (9a). It is true to say that the goodness/badness of certain natural inequalities is socially determined. For example, the advantage I may glean from possessing naturally blonde hair and blue eyes is determined by social norms of beauty. These are massively contingent and vary from society to society. One might argue that this provides evidence of the malicious effects of free will, since social norms might be thought to be products of free will.

Two problems arise. The first is that it's not clear that social norms and conventions are, properly speaking, the product of free will (Ted Poston's article "Social Evil" is instructive in this regard). The second is that many natural inequalities are disadvantageous in all societies. Pretty much any incurable, severe, congenital, neurodevelopmental disorder is of this sort. Since a well-functioning nervous system is essential to every human task, those who are unfortunate enough to have such disorders are going to be disadvantaged no matter what society they are in. Since they don't deserve to suffer in this way, their fate remains an evil.

How about premise (9b)? It would fail for similar reasons. It is true to say that individual will and effort can overcome a certain amount of natural inequality, but again two points arise. First, what justifies some people being put at a significant disadvantage when it comes to securing relevant goods? Second, there are serious congenital defects that cannot be overcome through the exercise of will and effort. A person with infantile Tay-Sachs disease, for instance, can look forward to an incurable progressive mental and physical degradation over the course of their short lives. They are not even blessed with the capacity to overcome their natural disadvantage.

That leaves us with the final possibility, premise (9c). Now, there's no denying that this is a fanciful possibility, one that not even Plantinga takes all that seriously. He originally introduced it as a response to the most abstract version of the logical problem of evil, and his goal was merely to show that as long as supernatural agency of this sort is logically possible, the logical problem of evil is undercut. Its applicability to an evidential version of the problem of evil is much more doubtful. Certainly, the evidential basis for claiming that natural inequalities are not the product of supernatural agency would seem to be superior to the evidential basis for claiming that they are. Furthermore, even if they did exist, such agents would act under the sovereignty of God, and there would remain the question of why he allows them to distribute benefits and burdens in an undeserved manner.

In sum, none of these three responses seems sufficient to defeat the problem of natural inequalities. Are there any others?

3. The Soul-Making Theodicy
The answer to that question is "yes". According to another very popular response to the problem of evil, God may be justified in allowing particular instances of evil, be they natural or moral in character, if they present sufficient opportunities for "soul-making". Soul-making is understood as the process of acquiring and developing moral virtues which are ultimately useful for securing communion with God.

Could it be that natural inequalities are essential for soul-making? Do they help to secure the optimal distribution of saved souls? One might argue that this is true. For starters, one could argue that the suffering of the victims allows them to develop the relevant virtues; and, similarly, one could argue that those who must care for the victims are given greater opportunity to develop the relevant virtues:

  • (11) If evil allows for a sufficient degree of soul-making, it provides no evidence against the existence of God.
  • (12) Natural inequalities allow for a sufficient degree of soul-making through two mechanisms: (a) the victims of the natural inequalities develop relevant moral virtues; and (b) the carers for the victims develop relevant moral virtues.
  • (13) Therefore, natural inequalities provide no evidence against the existence of God.

I must say, I have always found this theodicy hard-to-fathom. As you'll see, I mentioned in the first premise that the evil must allow for a "sufficient degree of soul-making". I say that because I think the theodicy can only succeed if the evil allows for more soul-making than there would otherwise have been. To me, this is a major stumbling block for the theodicy. I can't see why God has to turn creation into a game in which people overcome hardship and adversity to secure the ultimate end of communion with him. It all seems so capricious and gratuitous. God could have created us with the relevant virtues already in place; or he could have created us already in a state of communion with him. If he wanted to create and save souls, there were easier ways of doing this. Why would he choose such a gratuitous method?

Leaving that criticism aside, however, let's turn to the two limbs of premise (12). The first point to make here is that those with severe congenital cognitive defects probably don't get the opportunity to develop the relevant moral virtues. After all, development of those virtues would seem to require the advanced mental machinery which they, unfortunately, lack. That would rebut (12a). How about (12b)? The problem there is that the carers seem to have a double advantage over the victims. They receive undeserved superior cognitive capacities, and, because of these superior cognitive capacities, they are afforded greater opportunity for soul-making. Thus, they seem to win twice, both in their undeserved opportunities for soul-making and their resultant soul-making; correspondingly, the victims seem to lose twice, both in their undeserved lack of opportunities and the resultant absence of soul-making. It's hard to see how this state of affairs could be justified in light of the good of soul-making.

Mizrahi makes this case with the help of Rawlsian principles of justice, which, to be fair, probably make it stronger than it appears to be here. Nevertheless, I think the thrust of the argument is clear. In a sense, he is not only arguing that the soul-making theodicy fails, he is arguing that it is actively undermined by the fact of natural inequality.*

4. Conclusion
To sum up, Mizrahi has presented us with a "novel" evidential argument from evil. The argument focuses on a sub-category of natural evil, namely the undeserved distribution of natural properties, and claims that observable facts about that category of evil provides evidence against the existence of God. Furthermore, he claims that the argument fares well in light of the traditional responses to the problem of evil: the free will defence, and the soul-making theodicy.

I find much to admire in all this. In particular, I think the strategy that Mizrahi employs -- viz. the disambiguation of evil into more precise sub-categories -- is a fruitful one. Nevertheless, I think there are some missteps in the argument, notably in the failure to couch it in explicitly evidentialistic terms, the lack of acknowledgment of the sceptical theist response to evidential arguments, and the (perhaps most significantly) the claim that undeserved distributions of natural properties are intrinsically evil (irrespective of whether they give rise to pain and suffering).

* Mizrahi mentions two further arguments in his article. One is that all agents are equally well-placed with respect to the good of the beatific vision, the other is that God owes us nothing. I don't quite understand why Mizrahi treats the beatific vision as something distinct from the basic soul-making theodicy. As far as I am aware, the beatific vision is about achieving communion with God, which has typically been part and parcel of the soul-making theodicy. I agree with him, however, that the "God owes us nothing"-line is peripheral at best since, if we accept this view, we effectively reject the notion of God-independent standards of goodness/badness. That might be something a theist wants to do, but it raises a whole other set of issues.

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.