AS differentiated from natural evils (natural calamities and disasters, plagues, or pandemics), moral evils consist of harms – like murder, rape, theft, physical or psychological harm, etc. – perpetrated by humans on their own volition.
Here’s a fairly compelling text comment from a reader of this column:
“48 Christians were massacred by Islamic militants while they were praying inside a church in Iraq on October 31, 2010. If God knew this atrocity was going to happen and could have not stopped it, but did not, then He truly is a first class jerk. If He knew that this was going to happen, but could not stop it, then He is useless. If He caused it, then He is evil. If He did not know it was going to happen, then He is not omnipotent. Epicurus was right.”
Obviously, this rant – and valid as it is – precisely articulates the age-old philosophic-theological “problem of moral evil”: If God is all-powerful and all-good, yet why do moral evils happen?
On preliminary thought, I like to weigh in that this raving could be more meaningful if there were a God and likely senseless or meaningless if there were no God. Because if there is no one out there to hear or respond to such complaint, what is the point of complaining?
But let’s first delineate the salient points raised by our comment sender:
1. The gross moral evil of murdering 48 Christians while praying in Iraq by Islamic militants.
2. If God knew such atrocity was going to happen (referring to the presupposition that God is OMNISCIENT or all-knowing).
3. If God could not or did not stop such evil, then He is useless or powerless (hinting about the OMNIPOTENCE of God).
4. If God caused it, then He is evil or “not good” (alluding to the OMNIBENEVOLENCE or “all-goodness” of God).
5. Epicurus was right (This is in reference to the ancient Greek philosopher who argued that “If the gods could not prevent all evil, they were not all-powerful; and if they could do so but did not, then they were not very good”).
I would just zero in my response to our reader’s comment on the “problem of moral evil”, setting aside the subject of “natural evil” to some later piece(s) of this column.
But before I do so in demonstrating my contention, it is worth laying down first the distinction between God’s all-powerfulness and God’s all-goodness vis-a-vis our issue on the massacre of 48 Christians in Iraq.
1. Can God have the power to stop the said atrocious act of killing the 48 Christians? Yes, otherwise he is not God, supreme, or all-powerful. But why did he not? Well, I must surmise that because he is God, he is not without reason for not stopping it. But what exactly is his reason? I cannot put my mind into his, but I can only surmise in the scheme of things in the world.
2. Did God “will” (or want) the massacre to happen? No, because it runs counter to his being all-good. But again, why did he not “will” to stop it? It appears then that while God may have not willed or wanted it to happen, he allowed it in view of the “temporal” scheme of things. Allowing it cannot mean “causing” it.
Now, can these two elements of “powerfulness or capability” and “willingness or goodness” be also asked of the perpetrators of the Iraq massacre, the Islamic militants?
1. Did they have the “power or capability” of doing such an atrocious act? Indeed yes, and in fact, they did. This is important to be asked because, as we all know, the evilness of a wrongful act is determined not only on the capability or consummation of the act, but on the volition or willingness as well of the perpetrator. I cannot avoid imagining the millions or even billions of the human race who have culpably committed “murder, rape, and all kinds of moral evils” IN THEIR HEARTS AND MINDS but are only incapacitated or lack the power or opportunity to do them.
2. Did they (Islamic militants) fully “will or intend” the death of the 48 Christians as to render not only their act but also them as “morally evil”? Did they simply kill for the sake of killing? It might be important to note that in the minds of the Islamic militants, perhaps they were not considering their act as “morally evil” but as merely accomplishing a “jihadist’s greater good”. Oh, intentionality and free will! Are they the culprit in this vexing mess of moral evils?
Now, let me put forward my thesis point: God did not or does not cause moral evil. And, despite moral evils, God is yet all-powerful and all-good.
Then, why do moral evils happen?
Beforehand, I cannot accept the “previous lives and karma” argument which holds that “suffering is just a consequence of bad acts, and that while there is suffering in the world, there is no undeserved suffering”. But, if one inflicts harm and causes suffering upon another, is the suffering of the victim a result of his own bad act from his past life, or caused by the one who caused harm? Karmic law holds that “bad acts are punished; good acts are rewarded”. But why are innocent people punished with suffering and guilty people rewarded with pleasure? Inverted karmic law?
Neither do I find the argument from “sceptical theism” adequate. Its reasoning goes: Because of limited knowledge, humans cannot expect to understand God or his ultimate plan. Therefore, the impossibility of finding a plausible explanation for evil in a world created by an all-good God is to be expected, unless it can be shown that God’s reasons would be comprehensible to us.
But this begs the question: Why have we not been given a clear and unambiguous assurance by God that he has good reasons for allowing evil which would be within our ability to understand?
Nor also do I want to embrace St. Augustine’s explanation that “evil exists only as a privation or absence of good”. Thus, disease is merely the absence of health. Callousness is the absence of compassion.
But if we apply this argument to “all” moral evils in the world, can it be taken to the extreme as an ultimate “absence” or “non-existence” of God?
Verily, in the final analysis, I’d like to bring to fore my answer: Moral evils happen because of human free will.
In my simple understanding, God, who is all-powerful and all-good, has endowed us, aside from intellect (or faculty of knowing), with a free will. But, in our finiteness, this free will is NOT perfect; or that, human freedom is not absolute freedom (because “human freedom is not independent of God’s freedom; and God’s freedom is not equal or dependent of human freedom”).
Free will cannot be solely construed as freedom to choose or do what is wrong or bad. It is also the freedom to choose voluntarily what is right or good. It’s my modest reflection or thought, therefore, that perhaps the reason why God has given us such freedom of choice is for us NOT to imperfectly choose what is wrong or to say “No” to him but, in the finality of our lives, to choose what is perfectly good or to say “Yes” to him. In other words, moral evils may be considered as temporal deviations of the free will.
The free will theodicy holds that the disvalue created by the abuse of free will is outweighed by its great value and the good that comes from it. Thus, God is justified in creating a world where free will exists, instead of a world where neither free will nor evil exists.
That moral evils are but part of the evolutionary process is posited by the Jesuit philosopher-theologian, Tielhard de Chardin, who suggested that “God plays creatively in chance”.
On the matter of moral evil and free will, Chardin believed that “chance” and “choice” are intimately connected, and that the evolution or progression from “chance to choice” or from “selection to election” is not accomplished without a price, i.e. evil and suffering.
In his 1951 essay, “From Cosmos to Cosmogenesis”, Teilhard de Chardin, claimed:
“When cosmogenesis is accepted, then intellectually speaking, not only is there a solution to the problem of evil, but the problem itself ceases to arise. This is because, for inexorable statistical reasons, it is physically impossible for some lack of arrangement, or some faulty arrangement, not to appear within a multitude which is still undergoing the process of arrangement – and that applies to every level of the universe, the laws of large numbers make it absolutely inevitable that every step is paid for by failures, by disintegrations, by discordances.”
Indeed, for Chardin, the connection between chance and freedom explains not only the evolutionary matrix of human freedom, but also sheds light on the phenomenon of evil or suffering as a basic component of our existence.