Criteria for gratuitous evil

The argument from evil requires not just evil but gratuitous evil, but  this is something much harder to verify the existence of than mere evil. I don’t need any help to know how to commit an evil, but what if I want to commit a gratuitous evil? If we take Rowe’s account of it, I’d have to make sure that the evil I commit is such that God could have prevented it without losing some greater good. But how do I know I’ve done that? 

Presumably, martyring people is out. One can’t prevent this sort of unjust killing without losing the good of martyrdom, and so if I want to commit a gratuitous evil I’ve got to avoid killing persons for their beliefs. For the same reason, I couldn’t kill anyone who would die heroically. But this isn’t just true of killing but extends out to any wrongdoing. I couldn’t violate anyone who would use the occasion to grow in love or acceptance or forgiveness. I wonder if I could even harm someone without causing them to grow in a desire for justice, even if this desire was to some extent tainted by revenge. The growth through anger of the desire for justice is good one can’t get without evils, and one that gets more intense the more evil that is inflicted. So if I wanted to be sure I committed a gratuitous evil I’d have to make sure that the one I harmed didn’t even get angry about it.

But this wouldn’t be enough to ensure I committed a gratuitous evil. I’d also have to make sure that the evil caused no one else to respond to the killing with anger, love, acceptance or forgiveness. I can’t very well have the evil I commit igniting responses like that.  But it’s just here that the attempt to commit gratuitous evil hits a serious impasse: it’s hard enough to keep other human beings from responding to the evils we commit in these sorts of ways, but if the God that Christianity speaks of exists, then it is a logical impossibility for any evil not to elicit the response of anger or love or forgiveness, and here the anger is a totally unmixed desire for the good of justice, pure of any taint of irrational revenge or spleen. And so we have to presuppose that Christianity is false in order to make room for the possibility of gratuitous evils. Absent this, we cannot prevent an evil without losing the good of God’s own response to it either in a desire for justice or forgiveness.

Admittedly, one could argue that these goods are not “good enough” to balance out the evil that was done, but I think we simply lack the ability to know just how goods and evils can be compared like this. Just how good does divine anger or forgiveness have to be to balance out, say, drowning a kitten? Either we have to admit we don’t have the sort of units we need to put these two next to each other, or we’d say that any divine good is better than a good denied in a creature.


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