Notes on Rachels, PFP, chapter 3

(Ted Stolze)
Notes on James Rachels,
Problems from Philosophy
Chapter Three: The Problem of
“God is a concept by which we measure our
--John Lennon, “God” (1970)
Theodicy vs. Defense
A “ theodicy ” provides a complete justification of
God’s actions, whereas a “defense” only sketches
out a possible explanation. Compare the Book of Job.
Genuine Evil
There are at least some examples of what we
could call “genuine evil.” In other words, these
instances of evil are not illusory or simply
mischaracterized as bad but are in fact cases of
objective pain, suffering, or some other harm.
Natural vs. Moral Evil
This distinction concerns whether or not the evil in question is
human-caused. However, the distinction breaks down when we
consider such apparently “natural” evils that (indirectly) result from
human activities or have an unequal impact on different social
classes, for example:
•birth defects due to toxic exposure in the workplace or community;
•chronic conditions like asthma that result from air pollution;
•deaths that result from extreme weather patterns (hurricanes,
floods, and droughts) caused by anthropogenic climate change.
Natural Disasters
According to the Norwegian geologist Henrik Svensen (The End is Nigh: A
History of Natural Disasters [London: Reaktion Books, 2009]) natural
disasters can be classified according to their triggering hazard:
Geophysical (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions)
Hydrological (floods, slides)
Climatological (extreme temperatures, drought, wildfires)
Meteorological (severe storms)
Biological (famine, epidemics, insect infestations)
Svensen notes that “drought and epidemics [and famine] often have a
stronger social cause than do geophysical disasters, although they too are
triggered by a natural hazard and a society's lack of ability to deal with
changes in the environment" (p. 15). The U.S. historian Ted Steinberg has
equally argued that blaming natural or divine forces for calamity “has become
a tool used to advance various political interests in society” (Acts of God: The
Unnatural History of Disaster in America, 2nd ed. [New York: Oxford: 2006],
p. xiv).
Evil as a Problem for Monotheism
1. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good.
2. If God is all-powerful, then God could create a world
without genuine evil. (Assumption)
3. If God is all-knowing, then God knows that there is
genuine evil in the world. (Assumption)
4. If God is all-good, then God would want there to be a
world without genuine evil. (Assumption)
5. But there is genuine evil in the world. (Observation)
6. So, God (at least as defined above) does not exist.
Five Possible Explanations for
Why God Would Allow Evil to Exist
Pain is necessary as a part of the body’s warning
Evil is necessary so that we may better appreciate
the good
Evil is punishment for wrongdoing
Evil is the result of human free will
Evil is necessary for the development of moral
Objections to the Argument that Pain is
a Necessary Part of the Body’s
Warning System
Sometimes the body’s warning system fails
to warn
Sometimes the body’s warning system
falsely warns
An Objection to the Argument that Evil
is Necessary to Appreciate the Good
• Is so much evil necessary to make the
Objections to the Argument that Evil is
Punishment for Wrongdoing
• Why do innocent people suffer?
• What about natural evils?
Objections to the Argument that Evil is
the Result of Human Free Will
Are humans really free?
What about natural evils?
Objections to the Argument that Evil is
Necessary for the Development of Moral
• Sometimes people don’t develop moral
character in response to evil; they are simply
• How much evil is necessary for the
development of moral character?
Darwin on the “Face of Nature”
“In looking at Nature, it is most necessary to keep the foregoing
considerations always in mind—never to forget that every single organic
being around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in
numbers; that each lives by a struggle at some period of its life; that heavy
destruction inevitably falls either on the young or old, during each generation
or at recurrent intervals. Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so
little, and the number of the species will almost instantaneously increase to
any amount. The face of Nature may be compared to a yielding surface, with
ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by
incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with
greater force.”
(Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1st edition, chapter III [“Struggle
for Existence”], pp. 66-7; NOTE: Darwin removed this passage from later
editions because he worried that it contained too violent an image.)
Charles Darwin on the Problem of Natural Evil
“That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have
attempted to explain this in reference to man by imagining that it serves
for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the world is as
nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and these often
suffer greatly without any moral improvement. A being so powerful and so
full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite
minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to
suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can
there be in the suffering of millions of the lower animals throughout almost
endless time? This very old argument from the existence of suffering
against the existence of an intelligent first cause seems to me a strong
one; whereas, as just remarked, the presence of much suffering agrees
well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through
variation and natural selection.”
(The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, edited by Nora Barlow [NY:
Norton, 2005 (1958)], p. 75.)
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