A legacy post originally published on November 19, 2007 at 12:16 PM
🔗 Problem of Evil as Raised by Amoralists by Alexander Pruss
Sometimes an atheist who argues against the existence of God based on the problem of evil does not herself believe that there is such a thing as objective evil. The standard explanation of the apparent inconsistency here is that the atheist is arguing on the assumption that there is objective good and evil, an assumption that it is fair to use in an argument against the typical theist who is committed to it. I used to think this was a perfectly satisfactory story about what the atheist is doing. But no longer.
Here’s why. The atheist is arguing that there are events E such that:
(*) If it were the case that there is a God and objective good and evil, then E would be an evil, and God would have no justification for permitting E.
(Or maybe it should be an indicative conditional, but not argued for merely on the grounds that the antecedent is false.) Now it seems strange to be confident about this complex conditional proposition when one is not confident about the proposition:
(**) E is objectively evil.
To argue for (*), the atheist will use our intuitions about what kinds of things could morally justify what. But these intuitions also pull us towards (**), and do so more strongly. We should be rather more confident that, say, some horrible crime is unambiguously and objectively evil than we are of the claim that somewhere there isn’t some justification for God’s allowing it. For one, part of what makes the atheist’s argument plausible is precisely our belief that the crime in question is so horribly evil that it is hard to see what could justify such an evil. And that the crime is objectively evil is an essential part of this (if relativism holds, allowing the crime would be justified if God simply got himself to think about this as justified!). But if the atheist thinks that our faculties of moral intuition are wrong about the crime being so horrible that it is an objective evil, then I do not see how she can have a justified confidence in thinking that they are reliable at judging of conditionals like (*).
But perhaps the amoralist atheist is not offering an argument that she finds plausible. Perhaps she is simply offering an argument that she thinks the theist finds plausible. The theist claims, let us say, that God would be justified in allowing the crime in order to allow the victim the opportunity for exercising the virtue of forgiveness. The atheist says that the justification is not sufficient. But the atheist does not believe this. Instead, she believes that this is what the theist is committed to by the theist’s moral intuitions. But the theist denies such commitment. Then the discussion takes on an air of unreality—the atheist claiming that the theist’s intuitions say otherwise than the theist claims they do.
Of course none of this arises in the case of the problem of evil raised by someone who believes in objective good and evil.