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Natural vs. moral evil

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The Christian Scientific Society From the Christian Scientific Society, a new article by physicist David Snoke, “Thinking about the problem of evil,” based on presentations at the Agora Forum:

Natural evil and moral evil

… To address this, I must first take a few paragraphs to make a distinction between two types of evil: natural evil and moral evil. Natural evil is something that is physically unpleasant, possibly extremely and excruciatingly so. This could include pain and disease, hurricanes, floods, famines, parasites, etc. All these types of things can happen to us independent of any moral choices that humans make. We might make them worse by bad moral choices, but they would exist anyway.

Moral evil involves a decision by a being with moral ability. Much has been written on how to define moral evil: some hold that it is fundamentally relational, as a rebellion against God. If we use this definition, then clearly it is impossible for God to do evil. But that makes it seem as though good and evil are arbitrary: we just define whatever God does as good and not evil. But if we believe that God is eternal and unchanging in his character, we would like an absolute standard for good and evil, which we believe he follows consistently.

Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century pointed out that the good and evil are not symmetric. Good can exist in itself, while evil involves the destruction of the good. This makes defining evil much easier. “Good” is hard to define: it involves every good thing such as beauty, order, existence, life, meaning, etc. To make an exhaustive list of good would be a lengthy task. But assuming we have some intuitive sense of the good, we can define moral evil as that which seeks to destroy the good.

Here we have to be careful to use some nuance. Is evil that which destroys any good at any time? If so, then anyone who wants anything to change, ever, is evil, because a change involves some good thing ceasing to exist, being replaced by something else. As we have seen, it can be good to replace some good things with other, greater, good things. Pleasant feelings can be replaced by the temporary pain of exercise which is replaced by good health and strength. More.

Of course, a naturalist atheist cannot make a genuine distinction between natural and moral evil. That fact is a key structural support in his worldview.

See also: Abstracts for the What Is Information? meeting, November 13-14, 2015, Seattle

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An evolutionary challenge: explaining away compassion, philanthropy, and self-sacrifice

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How can we believe in naturalism if we have no choice?

16 Replies to “Natural vs. moral evil

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    jerry says:

    1. If God is all powerful, he can stamp out all evil immediately.
    2. If God is all good, he must want to stamp out all evil immediately.
    3. Evil exists.
    4. Therefore either God is not all power or he is not all good.

    This breaks down in statement 3 for the Christian God. For the Christian God, evil does not really exist. Well yes, one evil does exist but it is not the so called natural or moral evils that the OP discusses which are unwanted unpleasant events. The evil that does occur is the willing rejection of God and its subsequent consequence of separation from HIm. And God could stamp it out by not creating entities with free wills. But creating entities without free wills is a meaningless objective.

    The referenced article by Snoke misses the point. He points to Statement 2 but what he calls evil is just unwanted unpleasant events and not really evil. True evil is forever and devastating. All events in this world are finite and only relatively unpleasant.

    Any sensible Christian, as well as the Bible, agrees with statement #3, that evil is real.

    No, not when you look at the comparison between the unpleasantness of so called evil events and the reward. One if finite the other is infinite.

    Re word the above syllogism as follows

    1. If God is all powerful, he can stamp out all unpleasant events immediately.
    2. If God is all good, he must want to stamp out all all unpleasant events immediately.
    3. Unpleasant events exists.
    4. Therefore either God is not all power or he is not all good.

    The silliness of the theodicy argument now becomes apparent.

    The question now becomes why do unpleasant events exist? There lies a fruitful discussion.

  3. 3
    EDTA says:

    I have embarked on a project to research this very topic, and have realized a few important things. Just to toss out a few:

    – We have to be cautious with the idea of evil, because much of what Bible-believers know about it comes from the OT, where Hebrew has a smaller vocabulary than English, and therefore most if not all Hebrew words can have a range of English meanings. I.e., the Hebrew will be less precise. This has many implications. The Hebrew word translated “evil” is translated variously as harm, disaster, calamity, pain, sin, suffering, or bad. So is there a distinction that needs to be made which the Hebrew language was so imprecise as to be unable to make? Had the Hebrew been capable of greater precision, would the verses about God harming his creatures use a different word as opposed to where men harm each other? I think Snoke here skips too quickly over the details that might lie in wait.

    – The very fact of the existence of natural evil seems to be tied to the fact that we are finite, and live in a finite world. This necessitates the existence of pain to warn us of imminent injury, and limit us from intentionally injuring ourselves beyond certain limits. But once that level of pain can be felt, it becomes possible for others to inflict it on us.

    – Furthermore, our finiteness (in particular of our inability to know all things) implies that we will accidently perform acts that others will decide are evil, without our having been able to avoid it.

    – The existence of evil seems to necessitate additional harm in order to control evil itself. Since evil can be turned against itself, and since some evils can’t be stopped without destroying evil people, some (law enforcement officers, e.g.) have to do harm in order to stop greater harm from coming to pass. Does God Himself have to play this role sometimes, and would that explain the harm He does? For in the OT, God commands killing (which implies great suffering), and in some cases, takes direct credit for inflicting harm on people. Revelation certainly foretells a time of great suffering to be inflicted directly by God. Is this evil? Is it sin? How are those two related? If God does not do evil, then what are we to make of the OT killings he commanded or took credit for? And if killing commanded by God is not evil, then that opens up all sorts of problems.

    – Snoke is right to cite Augustine, and point out that evil could be defined as that which opposes good, but he still leaves us with no firm definition of “good”–which no one else has either. Specifically, there is no definition that allows us to classify particular acts as one or the other. It is almost disturbing that we cannot define either with any rigor, and yet we are commanded to do good and not evil. Our very finiteness makes us ill-equipped to carry out perhaps our greatest fundamental commandment from God.

    – I would agree that there are elements of mystery to things, including good/evil. This too is because we are finite beings: our Maker must have knowledge that we do not. There have to be things which are beyond our capacity for understanding, not merely beyond our knowledge in A.D. 2016.

    I’m realizing this is an area ripe for exploration, and will forge ahead. Thanks for linking to his article.

  4. 4
    Bob O'H says:

    Of course, a naturalist atheist cannot make a genuine distinction between natural and moral evil.

    Why not? David Snoke’s distinction makes no reference to any God: moral evils are done by moral beings, and I don’t know of any atheists why deny the existence of morals.

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    Aleta says:

    Right: human beings are moral creatures, who universally at least culturally, build perspectives to support those morals.

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    Mung says:

    Humans are created to be moral. Even atheists.

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    jerry says:

    It is almost disturbing that we cannot define either with any rigor

    Yet we use the terms without any thought as to what they means. I would suggest first finding definitions of what the various terms mean and then use them consistently. If it requires abandoning the terms, then so be it.

    People desperately want to use the term “evil” like it is a concept we all understand even though it has many meanings. Substitute “unwanted events” or “unpleasant events” for “evil” and see where it leads you.

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    jerry says:

    Here is Snoke’s Conclusion reworded slightly to substitute a definition of “evil” for the word

    Is the problem of unpleasant events a “mystery”? It depends on what we mean by mystery. If we mean, “Do Christians need to believe a self-contradiction?” then the answer is clearly no. There is no self-contradiction involved in believing that God has some ultimate good purpose for everything, including the unpleasant events that exists in the world. The Bible clearly states that this is the case (Romans 11:36 states this succinctly: everything is “from him” and “through him” and “to him”). There also is no self-contradiction involved in saying that God can be the ultimate cause of unpleasant events without himself doing unpleasant events, if indeed the greater good which comes from that unpleasant events is truly worth it.

    There is an element of mystery, however, if by mystery we mean things we do not and cannot know. The separation of first and second causes, and consequently the separation of God’s responsibility from ours, may seem mysterious to some people. This issue connects to the fundamental question, how can God create anything which is not himself? If what is created is generated from God, how can it be not-God? There is no self contradiction here, but a lack of knowledge. We do not know the process by which God made the universe separate from himself. But we do know that God endowed the created order with its own causal power, and moral beings have their own creative causal power.

    Similarly, while we can affirm that God has some ultimate good purpose for all things, we do not know what that purpose is in every case. The Bible gives us some hints at some good purposes, e.g., displaying God’s justice, creating people with intrinsic power (one may call this “dignity” of all people, in the language of Francis Schaeffer), developing good people with the patience to endure great things, etc. But the Bible never says that this short list of purposes is the entire story. Rather, in many places (e.g. Job 38-41, Isaiah 45, Ecclesiastes 3:11) God dramatically insists that he will not tell us the whole story, and that we have to trust him.

    To insist that I know that this particular unpleasant event can have no ultimate good purpose is a breathtakingly arrogant position. I would in that case be like the pot railing against the potter, the creature railing against the creator, to which God could say, as to Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” This is true whether I am talking about natural unpleasant events or moral unpleasant events.

    In the end, we may say that the greater-good argument comes down to faith: faith that God has ultimate good purposes for everything that happens. The real question of faith is not whether God exists—the Bible says that all moral beings know in their hearts that God exists (Romans 1:18-21, James 2:19). What we really have a hard time believing is that God is good. But it is not illogical to believe he is good. It is only hard to be humble enough to trust him when he will not tell us all of his purposes.

    When this is done, the silliness of the theodicy argument becomes obvious. We should focus on the one true evil event and not let these other things obscure what the Christian God is offering.

  9. 9
    buffalo says:

    @jerry

    Supposed God eliminated the most evil things. Eventually minor evil would be major evil with the same argument. Same with pain and suffering. Suppose God eliminated the highest pain. Eventually a pimple would be the highest pain and some would complain about that.

  10. 10
    Ginger Grant says:

    Speaking of natural vs moral evil, the grand jury has just charged the people who made the Planned Parenthood video. How evil is this?

  11. 11
    jerry says:

    buffalo,

    Supposed God eliminated the most unpleasant things. Eventually minor unpleasant thing would be major unpleasant things with the same argument. Same with pain and suffering. Suppose God eliminated the highest pain. Eventually a pimple would be the highest pain and some would complain about that. (I changed the world “evil” to “unpleasant things” to illustrate my point)

    Yes, this assessment came about from my business experience. I was involved in new product development while I was in marketing management. We would search for new product ideas by examining problems people had in their lives.

    I then taught advertising in a business school and applied my business training to the teaching of new product development and advertising campaigns. I realized once a problem was solved, a new problems would always arise that was less severe than previous problems but became paramount. Which led me to the the belief that problems could be ranked and that there would always be new problems. With the ranking there came an understanding that all problems no matter how onerous were finite. I had no idea that while teaching these processes that it would lead me to the concept of “evil” and just what it is.

    At that time I had never heard the theodicy argument so I never thought in terms of “evil” but I certainly had heard of the word. I then much later had a discussion of the theodicy argument with some friends who had theological training and we came to the conclusion that one of the problems is with the use of the word “evil” and since there is only one real “evil” applying the term to other things confused the discussion of just what “evil” is.

    Here is my discussion of this on UD over 8 years ago

    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....ent-146116

    I used to teach marketing at a university business school. In trying to teach the concept of product benefits for product development and subsequent marketing communication (sales, advertising, pr etc.) I stumbled upon what I consider an aspect of the problem of evil.

    As instances of what has been considered evil in life get solved, through such things as sanitation, flood control, medicine etc, we tend to focus on solutions on less mundane aspects of life that cause concern. Since a lot of the big stuff has been mainly solved in the developed world, people focus on what would have been considered lesser problems. And as we solve these problems the focus gets on what would have been more mundane issues a generation or two ago.

    Could anyone here imagine people worrying over the fate of a caterpillar under the control of a wasp when their children or family members are dying of plague or dysentery. Or the people during the depression worrying about the fate of the snail darter.

    As we get more affluent and more effective at controlling our environment, what was seen as minor annoyances will take on enormous proportions to many in our society. We used to worry about whether our new born baby was healthy or not. In a few years we will be having designer children and worry just as much about the littlest possible imperfection that was not planned for and then worry about this child’s future.

    So what I stumbled on is that a lot of what is considered evil is relative. Something that is not hard to understand but which I found few even considered. This is not a unique discovery by myself since I have since read many much more intelligent people than myself who have discussed this issue throughout history.

    Supposedly the main issue in Christianity is salvation and given that, there is only one true evil, the lack of salvation. So are the other things which are considered evil only worldly things and not really truly evil but only reflect our squeamish feelings and what makes us squeamish changes as we get more technological advanced.

    My thinking was a little fuzzy on this and it was really back burner for many years but in the last couple of years I have been trying to clarify it with help from various sources including comments by people at UD.

    So thank you for your comment.

  12. 12
    anthropic says:

    Perhaps Jesus’ strongest words were reserved for those who harmed children: It would have been better for the perpetrators to have had a millstone around their neck and cast into the sea than what awaits them.

    Seems that Jesus thought evil was real, and more than just “unpleasant events.”

  13. 13
    markf says:

    “Of course, a naturalist atheist cannot make a genuine distinction between natural and moral evil.”

    What rubbish. Naturalist atheists recognise the distinction between things that happen as a result of intentional behaviour and events that are accidents. They just have a different account of intentional behaviour.

  14. 14
    kairosfocus says:

    MF, Materialists reduce intention to non intention, indeed they struggle to ground responsible, rational freedom tot he point where they end in self referential incoherence and radical relativism tantamount to might and manipulation make right, amorality. KF

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    Aleta says:

    Yes to what markf said.

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    jerry says:

    Seems that Jesus thought the origin of unpleasant events. was real, and more than just “unpleasant events.

    Yes, unpleasant events are real and the harming of children is an unpleasant event for the children. But the text you chose makes my point.

    It would have been better for the perpetrators to have had a millstone around their neck and cast into the sea, an unpleasant events than what awaits them (a real use for the word “evil” that is consistent with Christian theology)

    Thank you for helping me make my point. I will use this passage in the future to illustrate how the word “evil” should be used.

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