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.

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