Notes on the Argument from evil

-The best any particular argument from evil can hope to do is to establish that God is not good in the sense the argument assumed. There are, however, at least a dozen non-reducible ways ways in which God can be called good/ infinitely good/ benevolent.

-There’s a lot of literature on the argument from evil that I’ve never read, but I’ve gone through a good deal of it without ever seeing an argument that began by saying “Dr./Saint _____ argued that God was infinitely good because _____” The arguments always start as if “God” just meant “infinite goodness/ benevolence”, and as if everyone from time out of mind just assumed he knew this without giving an account of what he meant or a reason why he thought it. And as if everyone meant the same thing by it.

-Even if one takes God’s infinite goodness as axiomatic, there are multiple ways in which it can be so taken, consider

a.) when the one supreme God of gods is thought of, even by those who believe that there are other gods, and who call them by that name, and worship them as gods, their thought takes the form of an endeavor to reach the conception of a nature, than which nothing more excellent or more exalted exists. (Augustine De doc, 1.7)

b.) God is that than which nothing greater can be thought.

c.) God is called good ‘as that by which all things subsist’ (Dionysius)

d.) The perfect is always prior in being to the imperfect (Boethius, following Aristotle)

e.) God is a perfect/ ideal person (Plantinga)

Notice that, while (a) was a clear influence on (b), the former is far more limited and particular while the latter is more general. (c) and (d) can be taken as showing either that God is axiomatically good, or that this follows from very broadly held assumptions.

-Notice that no one ever said “God is infinitely good because everything is awesome! Just look around :-)!” The goodness of God is given within a world where evil not only exists, but often seems to be deeply and radically involved in goodness. In other words, God’s infinite goodness can be just as much an attempt to come to grips with the evil in the world as the argument from evil is. As an empirical support for this, notice that evil makes some turn to God and some away from him.

-If we actually took some of the arguments or axioms of divine goodness seriously, we’d see they saw goodness though the idea of wholeness and totality rather than the way we see it as… what exactly? A lot of the lit says that God must be morally good, but we don’t have any consensus over what this would mean. Would God be an ideal utilitarian? Virtue ethicist? Should he have some goodness transcending this? Is even raising questions like this sheer nonsense? All of these accounts would give us very different views of God, and would in turn give rise to many different sorts of argument from evil, along with different clear resolutions to it. We should stop talking about “moral goodness” as if we all agreed what that meant.

-Many seek out God in the face of bad luck (loss of spouse, getting cancer, born in the wrong place or time) Here again we get another account of the divine goodness: God alone can give meaning to bad luck. God alone can ensure that this evil that befalls us has some sort of intrinsic, real meaning and not just one that we might impose on it though sheer force of optimism. This argument is part of a larger genre: arguments for the divine goodness that arise precisely because of the reality of evil (the simplest arises from the question, “if there is no God, why is anything evil?”)

-In the last fifty or sixty years we’ve grown comfortable seeing goodness as meaning, e.g. to ask “what is the meaning of life” or “what does it all mean” is the same as asking what it is good for or what the good of it could be. This commits us, however, to either seeing all good as determined by humans (whether individually or socially) or as determined by some other intentional agent. Either way, we get very different accounts of the argument from evil. What sense is there to “evil” if all goods (meanings) are determined by us? If we cannot determine them all, then how is good “meaningful”? If we trace this back to nature, in virtue of what is this good properly meaningful? 

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