Thursday, April 3, 2008

The other "problem of evil"

Sometimes, when presented with the problem of evil (for example, in the form of my "God of Eth" article [original here]), believers respond by saying "Well, ok, that's a problem for theists. But of course it's just as much a problem for atheists. Atheists need to deal with the problem of evil too."

This had me scratching my head for a while. If you don't believe in an all-powerful, all-good God, well, evil is not a "problem" for your position, is it? Atheists don't face the "problem of evil".

But then I realized that, actually, two quite different problems are being run together here.

There is of course a "problem of evil" that atheists face: the problem of how to deal, psychologically, with evil - with the sheer quantity of suffering, and also moral depravity, that so many of us have to endure.

The believer can find solace in their faith, of course. But to what can the atheist turn?

So yes, atheists face this "problem of evil". But it's a different problem. The right response to this move, I think, is to say that the theist has simply changed the subject.

They are trying to suggest, of course, that as the "problem of evil" is just as much a problem for atheists, it doesn't support atheism over theism.

But, as an argument against he truth of theism, the "problem of evil" is not a problem for atheism at all. Vast quantities of evil are evidence against the all-powerful-and-all-good-god hypothesis. They are not evidence against the no-god hypothesis.

True, atheists also face the question - how, if at all, are we to deal psychologically with evil? And it's true that they don't have a pat answer available to them in the way the theist does.

But even if the correct answer is: actually, many of us cannot deal psychologically with such evil without the support of religious faith, that would not give even one ounce of support to the claim that what the faithful believe is actually true.

33 comments:

Sinan said...

Evil is not a problem. An infinitely good Being who created evil for a purpose can remain infintely and ultimately good despite creating finite evil for an ultimately good purpose. Human action is essentially valueless for God except in so far as God has assigned soteriological to it that is specific to each individual. God created everything - including the parameters of our experience of good and evil! How should the from whom the whole paradigm derives be held accountable by it!? Ridiculous! Look at non-Christian cultures. Despite even more active scholarly culture in the Medieval Islamic/classical Hindu/Chinese cultures (400,000 hand-made, calligraphed books in the main library in 10th century Muslim Cordoba, the equivalent of practically limitless modern printed books in terms of human labour, at a time in Northern Europe when the largest library held a few hundred books!) you never find a 'problem' of evil in these cultures. Christianity has always been to dualistic, to concerned about afforsing man a false 'free - will ' to embrace the occasionalism that wipes the problem out! So when you talk about the problem of evil, and I grant it is a problem from your point of view, be careful that you do not wrongly generalise the statement to the whole theistic world (thats about 90 percent of the world in case you hadn't noticed)

Sinan said...

IGNORE LAST POST HERE IS THE EDITED VERSION I WAS USING A FOREIGN KEYBOARD AND DIDN'T REALISE IT WAS COMING OUT WITH THE WRONG LETTER :)

Evil is not a problem. An infinitely good Being who created evil for a purpose can remain infinitely and ultimately good despite creating finite evil for an ultimately good purpose. Human action is essentially neutral moral value for God except in so far as God has assigned soteriological value to it that is specific to each individual. God created everything - including the parameters of our experience of good and evil! How should the Being from whom the whole paradigm derives be held accountable by it!? Ridiculous!

Look at non-Christian cultures. Despite even more active scholarly culture in the Medieval Islamic/classical Hindu/Chinese cultures (400,000 hand-made, calligraphed books in the main library in 10th century Muslim Cordoba, the equivalent of practically limitless modern printed books in terms of human labour, at a time in Northern Europe when the largest library held a few hundred books!) you never find a 'problem' of evil in these cultures. Christianity has always been too dualistic, too concerned about affording man a false 'free - will ' to embrace the occasionalism that wipes the problem out! So when you talk about the problem of evil, and I grant it is a problem from your point of view, be careful that you do not wrongly generalise the problem to apply to the whole theistic world (thats about 90 percent of the world in case you hadn't noticed)

Anonymous said...

Where to begin?

If evil were not a problem then why do so many theologians expend so much energy in endless apologetics trying to excuse it away? If it is good to deplore evil in others and shun evil-doers why is God exempt?

A great number of non-Christian cultures were polytheistic and had a fair smattering of evil gods, spirits etc. Nor were their gods omnipotent. Evil is a problem if you claim an omnipotent omnibenevolent god, something which seems to be a recent innovation. As far as I know all the so called monotheistic religions try to paper over the cracks by introducing a devil. Granted the devil may be created by God and be a servant of God but why the need to do things at arms length? No point if you are omnipotent is there?

stephen law said...

Sinan said: "How should the from whom the whole paradigm derives be held accountable by it!? Ridiculous!"

Quite easily. In the same way that those who lay down the laws of the land can still rightly be held accountable to them.

But in any case, you are assuming some version of the divine command theory, which of course even many Christians (such as Richard Swinburne and Leibniz) reject, and for good reason (see Plato's Euthyphro dilemma). Go here:

http://www.iep.utm.edu/d/divine-c.htm

Sally_bm said...

I think the other problem of evil comes from Christians who don't understand what philosopher's mean when they say "the problem of evil"! Or perhaps they simply can't understand that unlike them, atheists don't always expect everything to be just and good in the end. It's such a different perspective on the world that maybe it just doesn't occur to them. or it does, and they think the atheists' lives should reflect this view more, by displaying greater nihilism etc.

I heard an interesting response to the problem of evil recently, just as an aside. It was quite Platonic actually. The Christian writing was arguing that we only recognise evil because we recognise it's opposite: God/ ultimate goodness. We've seen justice and goodness in God, and so can recognise such qualities when they appear on earth (like Plato's ideas of the forms). The world, however, is not God, so is not perfectly good in the ways that God is. (If all we needed was the perfectly good God, I guess we wouldn't have a world at all?). But it still leaves the question as to why a perfectly good being would create anything that took from that perfect goodness of existence.

Personally, I think it's a bad argument anyway, as we can understand the notion of justice/ goodness etc by its definition, and by smaller examples and illustrations, which operate like the "forms" and like this Christian's notion of God. What do you think?

Sally_bm said...

Ergh, sorry about the grammar there, esp. apostrophes! Why can't you edit these things?!

Paul C said...

Sinan: If you read through Stephen's material, it's clearly implied that when he is talking about theists, he is referring to Christian theists. However the problem of evil is not a result of "dualism" in Christianity; the reason that those other cultures do not face the problem of evil is because they do not present a conception of God that is both ultimately good and all powerful.

Eric said...

Stephen, I don't think you've accurately stated what theists mean when they say that the problem of evil is a problem for atheists as well as for theists, though I think you're right when you say that it's not the same problem.

The problem for theists is reconciling an all good god with the obvious fact of evil in his creation; the problem for the atheist is the fact of evil itself. In other words, the atheist faces the problem of explaining precisely what he means when he uses the term "evil."

If he only means that he personally doesn't approve of a particular act (or outcome, or motivation, etc.), then he's not speaking about evil, but about his preferences (and this notion of evil can of course do no work against a theistic worldview). If he means by "evil" that his society doesn't approve of the act (or even that no society has ever approved of the act), then it's still not evil that he's speaking about, but a collection of preferences (and for the same reason as with individual preferences, this notion of evil doesn't raise any problems with a theistic worldview). If he means by evil what we (individually or socially) have evolved to disapprove of, then he's merely provided a description without any normative content.

In short, the problem of evil for the atheist is explaining just what it is, and why any particular act is "evil" at all. The theist usually explains evil by contrasting it with god's nature (not simply with his will!), and while there are of course many puzzles with this sort of account, they aren't as problematic as those faced by the atheist (after all, if it's true that god exists, and that he is somehow the standard of all moral judgments, then we can say of some act that it's evil because it's contrary to the nature of the being whose very existence is the source of morality as such, while the atheist seems to have no similar standard to appeal to).

Paul C said...

Eric: I can only speak for myself, so please don't assume that my answer is the norm for atheists. The word "evil" is functionally meaningless to me, and I don't use it, so I don't face any such problem.

I assume from your reference to "worldviews" that you're a Christian. As Stephen noted in his original blog post, it would appear that you're trying to change the subject?

Eric said...

Paul, if the word "evil" is functionally meaningless, then you can't claim that theists have a problem here, since that very assertion presupposes that evil is real. If you try to say that you're only performing a reductio, then you're stuck with Christian conceptions of evil, many of which are consonant with (though not, psychologically, easily reconciled with) the notion of an all good god.

And I'm not trying to change the subject. On the contrary, I'm addressing the very subject Stephen raised, viz. what it means when theists say that the problem of evil is a problem for atheists as well. The title of this blog post is, after all, "the other problem of evil."

Paul C said...

Eric: the problem of evil is a problem within the Christian theological framework, viz. if God is all-good and all-powerful, why is there (so much) suffering?

Since atheists do not believe in God - whether good, powerful or neither - it is not a "problem" for them. However it is entirely legitimate for atheists to pose the question on the basis that Christians make certain claims about their god that appear not to be backed up by experience.

In addition, I think that the title of the blog post was meant to be ironic, and that Stephen does not in fact believe that there is a "problem of evil" for atheists - however I don't want to put words in his mouth.

Eric said...

"Eric: the problem of evil is a problem within the Christian theological framework, viz. if God is all-good and all-powerful, why is there (so much) suffering?"

I notice that you've changed it from "evil" to "suffering." Surely, you don't think that the term "suffering" is meaningless, so I doubt that you equate suffering with evil. Of course, you can't identify evil with suffering anyway: my doctor may cause me great suffering while treating me, but no one would say that he is therefore evil.

"Since atheists do not believe in God - whether good, powerful or neither - it is not a "problem" for them. However it is entirely legitimate for atheists to pose the question on the basis that Christians make certain claims about their god that appear not to be backed up by experience."

You're pounding on an open door here. I've already said that theists and atheists don't face the same problem. And, as I said, if the atheist simply accepts evil as a Christian concept, for the purpose of using a reductio, then he must use it as Christians do. And, as I suggested, there are Christian conceptions of evil that are (more or less) consistent with the existence of an all-good god (e.g. evil as a negation, or evil as a parasitic misuse of what is inherently good, etc.).

"In addition, I think that the title of the blog post was meant to be ironic, and that Stephen does not in fact believe that there is a "problem of evil" for atheists - however I don't want to put words in his mouth."

Again, the point of my initial post is that there is a problem of evil for atheists who claim that evil is real. Also, as I said, I was addressing the fact that Stephen has not correctly (in my view) formulated the problem of evil that atheists face (when they assert the reality of evil, that is; if you're an atheist who rejects the very concept of evil, then of course there is no problem for you, at least not with respect to this particular problem; you certainly face other problems, though. But, as I said, in this case you must use the Christian's own conception of evil, or else you won't be performing a reductio).

Paul C said...

Ah, presuppositional apologetics at its finest.

I notice that you've changed it from "evil" to "suffering."

No, this is simply a particular formulation of the problem of evil, and the one that Stephen referenced in his blog post.

Surely, you don't think that the term "suffering" is meaningless, so I doubt that you equate suffering with evil.

No, I don't. However the problem of evil is that the concept of an all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing God is hard to reconcile with the suffering that we see around us, particularly suffering that appears to serve no purpose.

And, as I suggested, there are Christian conceptions of evil that are (more or less) consistent with the existence of an all-good god (e.g. evil as a negation, or evil as a parasitic misuse of what is inherently good, etc.).

None of those conceptions have resolved the problem of evil successfully, which is why it is still such a widely-debated topic. This leads you to the slightly difficult position you present here, in which you claim that it's not a problem despite the existence of a vast body of philosophy and theology grappling with that very problem.

Again, the point of my initial post is that there is a problem of evil for atheists who claim that evil is real.

That's probably not a point worth pursuing when talking to an atheist who doesn't make any such claim, does it, though?

Also, as I said, I was addressing the fact that Stephen has not correctly (in my view) formulated the problem of evil that atheists face

Well, you're entitled to that view, but you appear to be going out of your way to prove Stephen's point that your main interest is changing the topic away from your particular problem of evil.

you certainly face other problems, though.

Actually, I don't, but thanks for asking.

Jackie said...

I don't know about the rest of you, but I have been grapling with the other "problem of evil." It's hard to live in a world with so many people doing such stupid or evil things. What should I do: care less? Focus on nice things (ignoring other people's plightes, thus, caring less)?

Kyle P. said...

Sinan said, "Evil is not a problem. An infinitely good Being who created evil for a purpose can remain infinitely and ultimately good despite creating finite evil for an ultimately good purpose."

This typical move sickens me, just so you know. It would have angered George Orwell, also. I would say, rather, that the ends do NOT justify the means.

To the other theists here:
If your god created everything, then your god created evil. If your god created evil, then I see no reasonable way to claim that god is all-good. If evil is to be considered a, "lack of god", or something contrary to god's nature (and therefore not really created by god), then I would simply ask for a description of your god's nature. If you cannot produce that, then what reason do I have to believe that your god exists? This is all I've ever really asked for: A reason to believe god actually exists. No one has been able to provide anything even remotely logical as an answer, so I remain an atheist. If you CAN produce that description, though, and it contains anything referencing "good" (as opposed to "evil"), then you have made a circular argument. Finally, if your god's nature is in any way omnipresent, then I must ask you to follow Kyle's Razor and define what you mean. If your god is omnipresent and we take the standard definition (i.e. everywhere), then your god is in evil. (Is this what Alfred North Whitehead would refer to as the fallacy of misplaced concreteness?) In other words, if your god is omnipresent, then there can be no lack of god, and hence no evil. And that's a contradiction.

I made an interesting blog post on the problem of evil, semi-inspired by Dr. Law. The last part of it made me laugh, until I realized that there are probably people like that.
http://thinkalotmore.blogspot.com

I plan to follow it up with some more discussion of specific apologetic moves that people try to pull, especially relating to free will, which are the kind that make me laugh the hardest!

Eric said...

"No, this is simply a particular formulation of the problem of evil, and the one that Stephen referenced in his blog post."

This is incomplete. Stephen *also* referenced 'moral depravity,' which cannot be reduced to suffering.

"None of those conceptions have resolved the problem of evil successfully, which is why it is still such a widely-debated topic. This leads you to the slightly difficult position you present here, in which you claim that it's not a problem despite the existence of a vast body of philosophy and theology grappling with that very problem."

I certainly never suggested that it isn't a problem; in fact, in my first post here I explicitly wrote: "The problem for theists is reconciling an all good god with the obvious fact of evil in his creation." That doesn't sound to me at all as if I've even implied that there is no problem. But the fact that there is a problem doesn't in any way entail that there aren't ways to deal with it. All I've suggested is that it's not necessarily insurmountable.

"Again, the point of my initial post is that there is a problem of evil for atheists who claim that evil is real.
That's probably not a point worth pursuing when talking to an atheist who doesn't make any such claim, does it, though?"

Indeed, but if you read Stephen's post you would've noticed that he makes this claim! "There is of course a "problem of evil" that atheists face: the problem of how to deal, psychologically, with evil - with the sheer quantity of suffering, and also moral depravity, that so many of us have to endure." Note, he uses the term "evil" himself, and he doesn't reduce it to "suffering."

"you appear to be going out of your way to prove Stephen's point that your main interest is changing the topic away from your particular problem of evil."

This doesn't make any sense, and for a very simple reason: the topic isn't my problem of evil, but whether there's another problem of evil, and if so, how it's to be understood. Stephen himself attempts to work out what the atheist's problem of evil could be; I happen to disagree with his identification of the atheist's problem of evil, and therefore have, completely within the context of the topic Stephen raised, presented my understanding of what theists mean when they say that the problem of evil is a problem for atheists as well.

Eric said...

"If your god created everything, then your god created evil. If your god created evil, then I see no reasonable way to claim that god is all-good."

I think that there are two different conceptions of "everything." You can mean "everything" as it is and as it ever will be, or you can mean everything with certain potentialities. For example, suppose I am able to develop a truly free (let's assume there's such a thing as autonomy) robot. I created this robot with certain potentialities, but I'm not in any way necessarily responsible for every act that robot performs. If you think that I am, then why aren't parents responsible (again, assuming that we are free) for every act their child performs? I know that you "laugh the hardest" at free will responses, but if god did create us as truly free beings, which is certainly presupposed by the notion that god created us to love him (love cannot be coerced, and it cannot be programmed), then he also created us with the potential to hate.

"This is all I've ever really asked for: A reason to believe god actually exists. No one has been able to provide anything even remotely logical as an answer, so I remain an atheist."

I'm sure that you believe sundry things for which you cannot provide a "remotely logical answer." Indeed, you can't provide a remotely logical answer for your requirement of a remotely logical answer.

"If you CAN produce that description, though, and it contains anything referencing "good" (as opposed to "evil"), then you have made a circular argument."

Not all circular arguments are fallacious; the question is whether the argument is viciously circular. Also, I think you're confusing your terms here: a description isn't an argument.

"Finally, if your god's nature is in any way omnipresent, then I must ask you to follow Kyle's Razor and define what you mean. If your god is omnipresent and we take the standard definition (i.e. everywhere), then your god is in evil...In other words, if your god is omnipresent, then there can be no lack of god, and hence no evil. And that's a contradiction."

Christians aren't pantheists. They're not panentheists either. When they say that god is omnipresent, they usually mean two things: first, that god's being sustains the existence of everything; and second, that god can be causally active anywhere in the universe.

Stephen Law said...

Eric said: "

The problem for theists is reconciling an all good god with the obvious fact of evil in his creation; the problem for the atheist is the fact of evil itself. In other words, the atheist faces the problem of explaining precisely what he means when he uses the term "evil.""

STEPHEN REPLIES: Actually, as someone else has already pointed out, the atheist can be a moral nihilist, and still run the problem of evil as an argument against theism, if the theist is committed to the notion of evil.

Second, "evil" is a misleading term, as it comes with metaphysical baggage. Suffering, and perhaps also moral depravity, would do.

But now we come to your other claim, which is that atheists can have no concept of morality other than one on which it boils down to personal preference, while theism does allow such an independent standard.

My view is that this is just religious propoganda. Yes, it's endlessly, repeated. Indeed, it has become a religious mantra. That doesn't make it true.

We could go over the Euthyphro dilemma, etc. at this point, but instead, I'll just draw your attention to Asia, where they have had a perfectly robust conception of morality for millenia - a conception that does not reduce morality to personal preference - yet on which no supernatural being is required to sustain moral relations.

Here's a nice quote (pointed out to me by my friend Tom Pilling)from My Country, My People (1935) by Lin Yu Tang (author of "Wild Swans").

"To the West, it seems hardly imaginable that the relationship between man and man (morality) could be maintained without reference to a Supreme Being, while to the Chinese it is equally amazing that men should not, or could not, behave toward one another as decent beings without thinking of their indirect relationship through a third party."

I too find that amazing.

Burp said...

Eric: I think that there are two different conceptions of "everything."

In a way I agree - everything is by definition all of a group of things. So your first definition of everything would be Everything with a capital E. Your second definition is not quite Everything, or everything up until a specific point in time. I would say an omnipotent god can do the former, but could also do the later depending on his objectives... (I mean if I were God I'd be playful and mess with my subjects minds. "Free Will? Pah - you think, dance my puppet...")

Eric: ...which is certainly presupposed by the notion that god created us to love him...

Is this not a big assumption? Anyway this does not presuppose a good god - an evil god would also create beings to love him (only he would refer to it as worship):
"I will create many beings to worship me... yes... then I will not feel so empty. Oh how they will love me - and if they DON'T; oh how I will punish them muhahahahahaha"
Luckily the Chirstian God does not think like this...

Eric: I'm sure that you believe sundry things for which you cannot provide a "remotely logical answer."

I think you are right here - what the previous poster should have said was rational explanation. Logical reasoning is not an absolute law that governs the universe. Plus just because an argument is logically valid does not mean that the conclusion holds.

I think a rational argument for the existence of a God would be interesting. I also think it is harder to provide for some conceptions of God than others.

I'll leave it up to philosophers to define what passes as a rational argument.

Hrmmm I appear to be saying logical reasoning is not the same as a rational argument. Not sure about that now.

Eric: ...that god can be causally active anywhere in the universe.

So God has a choice about where "he" is active? Does that mean we can judge "him" by what "he" chooses to be active doing (or not doing)?

--

Personally I don't see how the "Problem of Evil" can be a problem for Atheists. They don't say evil or good don't exist as concepts, just God does not exist. Evil to me is just an adjective that helps describe the actions of some entity:

Is the Parasitic Wasp Evil because it's larva eat the least essential organs in the caterpillar first, so that it's "larder" remains alive as long as possible? No - the wasp is amoral.

So to be defined as evil or good you need to factor in some aspect of morality. I would say yes.

Is it evil to accidentally kill someone? No.

Is it evil to purposefully set out to kill as many people as possible (perhaps by creating a Tsunami)? Yes.

Evil/Good are not forces in nature; just words - adjectives I would use to describe an entity due to the choices it makes.

Stephen Law said...

Eric said:

"I'm sure that you believe sundry things for which you cannot provide a "remotely logical answer." Indeed, you can't provide a remotely logical answer for your requirement of a remotely logical answer"

Stephen replies: Actually there are not many things I believe when, not only do I have little reason to suppose they are true, I am aware of overwhelming evidence that they are false. Which is, I'd argue, the situation for classical theism.

Second, the fact that reason cannot be justified non-circularly is one thing. But we have no grounds for supposing reason won't lead us to the truth. Whereas not only do we not have much to support theism, we have overwhelming evidence (the problem of evil) that it is false.

So these analogies you are trying to draw are highly misleading (though I grant that they are very popular with theists).

Paul C said...

Eric: This is incomplete. Stephen *also* referenced 'moral depravity,' which cannot be reduced to suffering.

You are wrong, in the sense that we can identify moral depravity through the suffering it causes to others. I assume that Stephen used this phrase to make sure that impersonal suffering (through natural disasters) and agency-based suffering (through harmful actions) are both included in the problem.

I disagree with his use of the word "evil" in this context, but you should understand that he is only using it as a placeholder. As he suggests in his reply above, we could label this the "problem of suffering" (which I would prefer) and it would still pose exactly the same challenge to a Christian theist.

Anonymous said...

Paul said "You are wrong, in the sense that we can identify moral depravity through the suffering it causes to others. "

Not sure this is complete either - what about
a) when someone intends to cause suffering but is unable to do so (chance, bad planning, runs out of bullets etc.) Many would consider such people depraved.
b) when no suffering per se is caused but some good is denied. e.g willfully denying your children an education.

Paul C said...

Not sure this is complete either

I didn't say that it was an exhaustive account of how we identify "moral depravity", though :)

Of the two examples you give, the first doesn't meet the criteria of causing suffering. Thinking nasty thoughts doesn't cause suffering, and therefore doesn't contribute to the problem of suffering that we're discussing.

The second is more interesting. In the example you give, you could point to "suffering" in terms of missed opportunities, poorer material conditions, worse health. However as with example one, if it doesn't cause suffering then it doesn't really fit with the problem.

However I can see that there are ways you might formulate this in such a way as to apply here, but it wouldn't change the basic argument.

Eric said...

Stephen wrote: "Actually, as someone else has already pointed out, the atheist can be a moral nihilist, and still run the problem of evil as an argument against theism, if the theist is committed to the notion of evil."

I agree with this, which is why I pointed out the fact that if the an atheist doesn't accept the reality of evil (like Paul C), he must use the Christian conception of evil, especially if he's trying to work out a reductio.

Stephen wrote: "Second, "evil" is a misleading term, as it comes with metaphysical baggage. Suffering, and perhaps also moral depravity, would do."

But suffering doesn't seem to do the heavy lifting "evil" does. As I pointed out earlier, we're all familiar with many situations in which some suffering, even substantial suffering, is consonant with the goodness of the person causing (or allowing) the suffering (e.g. your doctor or your parent). I know that in these examples the benefit of our suffering is much clearer, but this doesn't affect the important point that suffering can be logically consistent with the promise (or hope) of a future benefit. And I know that one could respond by saying that, for example, my doctor isn't omnipotent, and that he in fact causes as little suffering as possible, and would indeed prefer to cause no suffering at all. But this presupposes that the nature of the benefit from the doctor is analogous to the nature of the benefit from god (i.e. that suffering isn't a necessary part of the hoped for outcome). Also, we can think of situations in which, say, a parent will not prevent his child from suffering if it will help her to become a good person. So while "suffering" may indeed come with less metaphysical baggage than "evil," it seems to lose some of its effectiveness as it throws of its excess metaphysical weight.

Stephen wrote: "But now we come to your other claim, which is that atheists can have no concept of morality other than one on which it boils down to personal preference, while theism does allow such an independent standard."

I didn't mean to imply this, and perhaps wasn't clear enough. I didn't mean to suggest that my examples (personal preference, societal preference, evolution) were exhaustive, though I can certainly see how someone could've come to that conclusion. My claim is that when atheists who accept the reality of evil make use of the problem of evil against theists, they are left with the problem of explaining why it is that certain acts are evil in the first place. It seems to me that it is here that most atheists stumble when debating theists. Even Bertrand Russell wrote somewhere (if I remember correctly)that he could disagree with a Nazi, but he couldn't show the Nazi why his beliefs are wrong.

Stephen wrote: "I'll just draw your attention to Asia, where they have had a perfectly robust conception of morality for millenia - a conception that does not reduce morality to personal preference - yet on which no supernatural being is required to sustain moral relations."

I don't think my claim is that an atheist cannot conceive of morality (and it's certainly not that an atheist cannot act morally), but that he cannot adequately ground it. (Here's what I wrote: "In short, the problem of evil for the atheist is explaining just what it is, and why any particular act is "evil" at all.")

Stephen wrote: "Actually there are not many things I believe when, not only do I have little reason to suppose they are true, I am aware of overwhelming evidence that they are false. Which is, I'd argue, the situation for classical theism."

I can only speak generally here, but I'd like to emphasize the fact that we don't interpret the evidence in a vacuum. Quite often, it is our "worldview" (for lack of a better term) that largely determines how we interpret the evidence, and it is not itself a product of ratiocination. Indeed, it's difficult to see how it could be, since the worldview itself predetermines what we count as evidence (or as good evidence, weak evidence, etc.) by providing the framework that props up the evidence in the first place.

Stephen wrote: "So these analogies you are trying to draw are highly misleading (though I grant that they are very popular with theists)."

I'm not trying to mislead! I'm honestly trying to work my way through the arguments. I'm an agnostic who is attracted (at least right now!) to the Christian worldview, and who is considering the arguments concerning it. Also, I'm trying to make very specific points with these analogies (e.g. the point about reason is not that it is trustworthy without a rational justification, therefore theistic belief is trustworthy as well, but only that we don't in fact demand a rigorous, rational justification of everything we believe, and that it is not possible to provide such a justification for everything).

Paul C wrote: "You are wrong, in the sense that we can identify moral depravity through the suffering it causes to others."

Not all instances of moral depravity cause suffering, as Anonymous nicely pointed out. Imagine a man who spends all his time writing stories (that he shows no one) fantasizing about raping and torturing children. Let's say that he's too much of a coward ever to act on these fantasies, so he harms no one. He has no family, and he is otherwise apparently "normal," so his fantasy life doesn't cause any harm as in terms of discernable opportunity costs. Such a man harms no one, causes no suffering, yet is certainly someone we would call "morally depraved." Your riposte that "bad thoughts" don't cause suffering and therefore don't contribute to the problem of suffering we're discussing misses the point, since what is at issue here is whether moral depravity can be explained in terms of suffering. It doesn't seem, if you consider Anonymous's and my examples, that it can be.

Paul C said...

"I pointed out the fact that if the an atheist doesn't accept the reality of evil (like Paul C), he must use the Christian conception of evil, especially if he's trying to work out a reductio."

I'm glad we're agreed, but I feel bound to point out is that there is a significant difference between using a particular conception of evil (as part of a philosophical discussion) and subscribing to a particular conception of evil (as part of a philosophical outlook).

So while "suffering" may indeed come with less metaphysical baggage than "evil," it seems to lose some of its effectiveness as it throws of its excess metaphysical weight.

No, it doesn't. It still poses exactly the same problem for theists, as you have demonstrated in your attempts to justify human suffering by casting your god in terms of a loving parent who wants their child to grow.

My claim is that when atheists who accept the reality of evil make use of the problem of evil against theists, they are left with the problem of explaining why it is that certain acts are evil in the first place.

Because theists define them as evil. You continue to use the word "evil" instead of "suffering" - try switching the two and the "problem" you think atheists face disappears.

I don't think my claim is that an atheist cannot conceive of morality (and it's certainly not that an atheist cannot act morally), but that he cannot adequately ground it.

An atheist can adequately ground morality, but cannot make an appeal to authority and can only rely on reasoned discussion to persuade somebody else of their view. The theist can make an appeal to authority (and label it "objective") but that appeal is meaningless if the other person does not recognise the authority.

In fact, the appeal to authority generally fails, and theists usually rely on reasoned discussion in the end (although they will phrase their argument in religious terms). You can see this happening throughout western history - for example, in the abolition of the slave trade.

Indeed, it's difficult to see how it could be, since the worldview itself predetermines what we count as evidence (or as good evidence, weak evidence, etc.) by providing the framework that props up the evidence in the first place.

Words do not exist that can express my hatred of presuppositional apologetics. Perhaps you could tell me how our "worldview" is formed in the first place?

I'm not trying to mislead! I'm honestly trying to work my way through the arguments. I'm an agnostic who is attracted (at least right now!) to the Christian worldview, and who is considering the arguments concerning it.

I find this statement very interesting, because you're using arguments that are straight out of the playbook of presuppositional apologetics. I therefore find it difficult to believe that you are an agnostic.

Imagine a man who spends all his time writing stories (that he shows no one) fantasizing about raping and torturing children.... Such a man harms no one, causes no suffering, yet is certainly someone we would call "morally depraved."

I wouldn't call him morally depraved, so your argument carries no weight for me. As I've said, I cannot speak on behalf of Stephen. When I raise the question of how there can be suffering in the world if the Christian God exists, I am talking about actual suffering. I am not talking about imaginary things that happen in peoples' minds - they are of no interest to me unless they have an impact on real people in the real world.

Your riposte that "bad thoughts" don't cause suffering and therefore don't contribute to the problem of suffering we're discussing misses the point, since what is at issue here is whether moral depravity can be explained in terms of suffering.

No. I didn't say that we can explain moral depravity in terms of suffering. What I said is that we can identify moral depravity through the suffering it causes to others, and I qualified that by saying that suffering does not necessarily provide an exhaustive account of moral depravity.

I would prefer never to use the term "moral depravity" - it's not functionally meaningless (unlike the word "evil"), but I've never found it very useful.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Gary

I'll leave your attempt to account for suffering and moral depravity by suggesting it's e.g. part of God's character-building programme for a main post (which I will do in a minute).

I will briefly comment on your clarification that theists can *ground* moral claims, whereas atheists struggle to. This is false, I think. Though I have not time to explain here. Maybe later.

But it is largely irrelevant to the original point I made, I think. I pointed out that the classical problem of evil is a huge problem for theism, not so for atheism. You replied that there's *another* problem of evil that's a bigger problem for atheism. But it isn't a problem for atheism. That's untrue, in fact.

But even if it *were* true, it wouldn't help so far as levelling up the reasonableness of theism/atheism is concerned. The classical problem of evil is a very powerful argument directly against the truth of theism. The problem of how to justify moral claims without God maybe insoluble, but notice that *that, by itself, gives us no grounds at all for supposing theism is true*. (Indeed, given we have excellent grounds for supposing there is no God, we may then just have to accept moral claims cannot be justified.) In short, there's no real rational "levelling up" being done by your appeal to this other problem of evil. Given the strength of the classical problem of evil as an argument against theism, theism remains a non-starter.

Finally, you said: "the point about reason is not that it is trustworthy without a rational justification, therefore theistic belief is trustworthy as well, but only that we don't in fact demand a rigorous, rational justification of everything we believe, and that it is not possible to provide such a justification for everything."

My reply: But this fails to engage with the classical problem of evil, which is specifically a very powerful argument *against* the truth of theism. In making the above point, you fail to acknowledge this. The problem is *not* one of an *absence* of justification.

Eric said...

Paul C wrote: "I'm glad we're agreed, but I feel bound to point out is that there is a significant difference between using a particular conception of evil (as part of a philosophical discussion) and subscribing to a particular conception of evil (as part of a philosophical outlook)."

I agree entirely.

Paul C wrote: "It still poses exactly the same problem for theists, as you have demonstrated in your attempts to justify human suffering by casting your god in terms of a loving parent who wants their child to grow."

First, it's not "my god." I'll address this directly below. Second, I don't think it poses "exactly" the same problem, and actually think that "evil" is a bit more difficult for the theist to deal with than "suffering" precisely because of the metaphysical implications of the former, but I readliy admit that suffering itself is an extremely difficult problem for the theist nonetheless.

Paul C wrote: "Because theists define them as evil. You continue to use the word "evil" instead of "suffering" - try switching the two and the "problem" you think atheists face disappears."

I think you missed the relevant part of the quote of mine you were commenting on, to wit "atheists *who accept the reality of evil*."

Paul C wrote: "An atheist can adequately ground morality, but cannot make an appeal to authority and can only rely on reasoned discussion to persuade somebody else of their view. The theist can make an appeal to authority (and label it "objective") but that appeal is meaningless if the other person does not recognise the authority."

First, I would ask how you ground morality. Take the example I offered earlier from Russell: How would you show a Nazi that he is morally wrong? Second, I don't think that the ultimate appeal in theism with respect to moral questions is that of authority, but rather an appeal to nature, both our nature and what they understand god's nature to be.

"Words do not exist that can express my hatred of presuppositional apologetics. Perhaps you could tell me how our "worldview" is formed in the first place?"

I think you're mistaking a necessary element of presuppostionalism, i.e. a focus on worldviews, for a sufficient one. Indeed, no presuppositionalist would proceed as I have, since they begin by supposing that there is no neutral ground on which those of competing worldviews can argue. I certainly haven't supposed that. Rather, I've merely emphasized the role worldviews do in fact play in our analysis of the evidence. With respect to how worldviews are formed, I couldn't give you an adequate account of their origins, but it doesn't follow that they therefore can be dismissed. I can't explain precisely how the english language evolved, but I don't think you'd question my use of it. I think it's uncontroversial to suggest that we must interpret data, and that how we interpret it depends on our general view of how the world is, and of what is therefore possible, probable, improbable and impossible.

"you're using arguments that are straight out of the playbook of presuppositional apologetics. I therefore find it difficult to believe that you are an agnostic."

As I said above, my arguments cannot be characterized as presuppositional apologetics, so your grounds for doubting my sincerity are false. But I've always found it interesting that those who are committed to a particular position feel it necessary to question the sincerity of those who are trying to get their bearings by trying to understand the positions on both (or all) sides, or by those who seem to think that both sides have something of value to say, and are neither completely right nor completely wrong. One can quite consistently be an agnostic and reach the (provisional) judgment that the problem of evil isn't as much of a problem as it is often said to be. I don't think you have any reason to question my sincerity.

"I didn't say that we can explain moral depravity in terms of suffering. What I said is that we can identify moral depravity through the suffering it causes to others, and I qualified that by saying that suffering does not necessarily provide an exhaustive account of moral depravity."

If "suffering does not necessarily provide an exhaustive account of moral depravity," and if 'bad' thoughts, desires and intentions don't count, then what else does? I know you said that you don't like using the term, but you did use it, and your account of what you mean by it is getting less clear.

Stephen wrote: "But even if it *were* true, it wouldn't help so far as levelling up the reasonableness of theism/atheism is concerned. The classical problem of evil is a very powerful argument directly against the truth of theism. The problem of how to justify moral claims without God maybe insoluble, but notice that *that, by itself, gives us no grounds at all for supposing theism is true*."

I agree that if what I'm saying is true it doesn't level the ground between theism and atheism, and that the problem of evil that theists face is much more difficult than the problem (supposing there is one) of evil that atheists face. But I will emphasize that since I was talking specifically about atheists who acknowledge the reality of evil (and not just suffering; I tried to show why I don't agree with the identification of suffering and evil), it seems to me that they must explain what they mean by evil and how they ground this understanding. As I said, though, they need not do this if they're simply using the Christian conception of evil to show that Christianity is internally inconsistent.

"My reply: But this fails to engage with the classical problem of evil, which is specifically a very powerful argument *against* the truth of theism. In making the above point, you fail to acknowledge this. The problem is *not* one of an *absence* of justification."

I agree. I see that my response about 'reason' was indeed point missing. Thanks for clarifying that for me! As I said, I just want to make my way through these arguments, and find what makes most sense to me.

Paul C said...

Eric: I don't want to get off-topic, but I merely said that I find it difficult to believe that you are agnostic; I am not questioning your sincerity, only your beliefs. I've had debates with presuppositionalists who present exactly the same arguments that you do, so you'll forgive me for thinking that if it quacks like a duck, it most likely is a duck.

First, I would ask how you ground morality. Take the example I offered earlier from Russell: How would you show a Nazi t
that he is morally wrong?


I base my actions on principles of reciprocity, utilitarianism (broadly) and Oliver Wendell Holmes' swinging fist. This seems to be a workable framework not just for my life, but for society in general (mileage may vary, obviously). I would show a Nazi that he is "morally wrong" (not a phrase that I would ever use) by explaining why I think he is wrong on the basis of those principles - he is then free to agree or disagree.

If "suffering does not necessarily provide an exhaustive account of moral depravity," and if 'bad' thoughts, desires and intentions don't count, then what else does?

I said that suffering does not necessarily provide an exhaustive account because I realise that other people (such as yourself) believe that moral depravity includes items that do not involve suffering, and I'm prepared to listen to those points of view.

Personally I believe that "moral depravity" (a phrase which I would never use except for the purposes of this discussion) consists entirely of actions that harm other people. I have yet to hear a convincing argument that moral depravity includes anything else.

I will emphasize that since I was talking specifically about atheists who acknowledge the reality of evil (and not just suffering; I tried to show why I don't agree with the identification of suffering and evil), it seems to me that they must explain what they mean by evil and how they ground this understanding.

Perhaps it would help me if you explained again why you don't agree with the identification of suffering and evil. What do you mean by evil, and what evil do you see that doesn't involve suffering?

p.s. I'd like to see a reference for that Bertrand Russell statement.

Eric said...

Paul C wrote: "I am not questioning your sincerity, only your beliefs. I've had debates with presuppositionalists who present exactly the same arguments that you do, so you'll forgive me for thinking that if it quacks like a duck, it most likely is a duck."

That's fair, but as I said, I don't personally think my arguments can be categorized as presuppositional apologetics, since I do not assume that there is no neutral ground on which to discuss theism and atheism. And this belief is, as I said, a necessary element of presuppositionalism: without it, you aren't a presuppositionalist.

Paul C wrote: "I would show a Nazi that he is "morally wrong" (not a phrase that I would ever use) by explaining why I think he is wrong on the basis of those principles - he is then free to agree or disagree."

Why should the Nazi accept your principles? Can't he reject them, and, violating Holmes' dictum, believe that his freedom to swing his fist doesn't stop at the tip of your nose? And what if his principle is "I'm stronger than you are, so I'm right," and he then goes on to enforce his views? Do you have, in your view, a moral argument that goes beyond "Your principles are not the same as mine, and if I were strong enough, I'd prevent you from enforcing yours"? In other words, how can you show not simply that you hold different principles (this is obvious), but that his are wrong? We already know that the Nazi isn't a utilitarian, and that he doesn't care for Holmes. We also know that he won't listen to a word you say (this is important, because I'm not asking how you could persuade the Nazi, but how you could show that you're right and he is wrong, whether he agrees or not). How can you show that he's wrong?


Paul C wrote: "Personally I believe that "moral depravity" (a phrase which I would never use except for the purposes of this discussion) consists entirely of actions that harm other people. I have yet to hear a convincing argument that moral depravity includes anything else."

Imagine this: you get to pick your neighbor, but you have to choose between two possible candidates. Each man is a loner. Neither has a family, and neither has any friends. Neither harms anyone. One spends all his time reading and writing poetry, while the other spends all his time fantasizing about torturing, raping and killing children, but would never act on these fantasies (assume you know this), and he would never reveal his fantasy life to anyone (again, assume you know this for the purpose of the thought experment). You have no personal interest in choosing one over the other: neither will harm you in any way, and neither will befriend you (or anyone else). I think everyone in his right mind would choose the poet. Why? Because we would consider the latter man to be morally depraved, whether he harmed us or not. But according to your position, either man would be equally acceptable, since the consequences of having either as a neighbor would be exactly the same. Can you honestly say that you would feel the same about the poet as you would about the man who fantasizes constantly about raping, torturing and murdering children? And if you also would choose the poet, what would motivate your decision, if not a moral judgment against the other man?

Paul C wrote: "Perhaps it would help me if you explained again why you don't agree with the identification of suffering and evil. What do you mean by evil, and what evil do you see that doesn't involve suffering?"

I don't think evil can be reduced to suffering because it's often necessary to cause suffering in the interest of a future benefit. Someone with cancer will suffer quite a bit from the treatment of the disease, but no one would say that his doctor is evil. If the doctor can intentionally cause his patient suffering in the interest of a future good without warranting moral condemnation, then it follows that not all suffering is evil, or rather that we can't reduce evil to "whatever causes suffering." But if the intentional causing of suffering is only rightly categorized as "evil" (or "wrong" or whatever other term you'd prefer) in certain circumstances, then something other than suffering is at work here. Perhaps this is where moral depravity comes in: it helps us distinguish the "wrong" sort of suffering from the justifiable suffering. But then you're still left with the problem of explaining what this other element is, for it does seem essential, as I think my example shows.

"p.s. I'd like to see a reference for that Bertrand Russell statement."

I have checked, but I cannot find the source of this specific remark. I did, however, come across a number of remarks that support the general position Russell is positing. Here are a few:

"I cannot, therefore, prove that my view of the good life is right; I can only state my view and hope that as many as possible will agree." (If you want to object that Russell is not speaking specifically about morality, but about the good life, here is a quote from the preceeding paragraph that shows that he is identifying the two: "*In the world of values, nature in itself is neutral, neither good nor bad,* deserving of neither admiration nor censure. *It is we who create value and our desires which confer value*. In this realm, we are kings, and we debase our kingship if we bow down to nature. *It is for us to determine the good life*, not nature -- not even for nature personified as god." Both quotes are from "What I Believe").

"I do not think there is, strictly speaking, such a thing as ethical knowledge...All moral rules must be tested by examining whether they tend to realize ends that we desire." (Ibid.)

I think it's easy to deduce an agreement with the "nazi" example from these quotes. But I apologize for not being able to provide a source for the original quote (or, rather, paraphrase).

Paul C said...

We also know that he won't listen to a word you say (this is important, because I'm not asking how you could persuade the Nazi, but how you could show that you're right and he is wrong, whether he agrees or not).

I'm confused. Can you explain the distinction between showing a Nazi that he's wrong, rather than persuading a Nazi that he's wrong - surely the test of the argument is in whether he accepts it or not? And can you also specify which of the Nazi's principles I am supposed to be refuting - for example, am I supposed to refute his Christian faith? His economic policies? His expansionist tendencies? It would help to have some specifics here.

Imagine this: you get to pick your neighbor, but you have to choose between two possible candidates... I think everyone in his right mind would choose the poet. Why? Because we would consider the latter man to be morally depraved, whether he harmed us or not. But according to your position, either man would be equally acceptable, since the consequences of having either as a neighbor would be exactly the same.

Yes, that's my position. [The only other (purely practical) consideration is whether the fantasist would spend all his time staring at my children, since that would probably disturb them.] I'm not sure what your point is, though, and I'm not sure why you persist in calling the fantasist "morally depraved". The reason that I ask is because if you reverse the thought experiment, it reveals the huge flaw in your reasoning. Imagine the fantasist spends all his time fantasising about helping, healing and saving people, but will never act on his fantasies. Would you say such a man is morally admirable? If you wouldn't call him morally admirable, then why do you call the man who dreams about the reverse morally depraved?

I don't think evil can be reduced to suffering because it's often necessary to cause suffering in the interest of a future benefit.

Your argument is meaningless to me. I do not subscribe to the concept of evil, and when I discuss the problem of evil, I mean the problem of suffering (and I assume the same is true for Stephen). Because I do not believe that evil has any functional meaning, I am not "reducing" evil to "whatever causes suffering". It is only by defining evil as "whatever causes suffering" that I am able to use the word at all, and I have still not seen from you any description of anything beyond "whatever causes suffering" that might constitute evil.

So the actual problem is as follows: if God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good, why is there suffering in the world? Let's use the example of the doctor: "If the doctor can intentionally cause his patient suffering in the interest of a future good without warranting moral condemnation" seems on the face of it to be a good argument, until you look at the real world. You would clearly condemn a doctor that intentionally caused their patient to suffer if they had the power to relieve that suffering. God is a doctor that has the power to relieve suffering but does not use it, and the problem stands.

Eric said...

Paul C wrote: "I'm confused. Can you explain the distinction between showing a Nazi that he's wrong, rather than persuading a Nazi that he's wrong - surely the test of the argument is in whether he accepts it or not?"

There is a difference between persuading someone that something is right, and showing (demonstrating, etc.) that something is right. For example, I may not be able to persuade someone that, given certain axioms and certain principles of logic, Euclid's Fifth Proposition follows, but that doesn't in any way affect the validity of Euclid's argument. I'm just emphasizing the distinction between whether an argument in fact is valid, sound, probable, etc. and whether you can persuade someone that an argument is valid, sound, etc. In other words, there's no contradiction involved in saying "The argument is in fact sound, but so-and-so is not persuaded, i.e. doesn't think it's sound."

Paul C wrote: "And can you also specify which of the Nazi's principles I am supposed to be refuting - for example, am I supposed to refute his Christian faith? His economic policies? His expansionist tendencies? It would help to have some specifics here."

We're talking about morality, not economics or policy (though, of course, economics and policy may be justified in terms of morality). Take your pick of any specific Nazi moral principle (not pseudo-science, and not politics alone), and go from there. The particular principle isn't important; any will do.

"Yes, that's my position. [The only other (purely practical) consideration is whether the fantasist would spend all his time staring at my children, since that would probably disturb them.] I'm not sure what your point is, though, and I'm not sure why you persist in calling the fantasist "morally depraved". The reason that I ask is because if you reverse the thought experiment, it reveals the huge flaw in your reasoning. Imagine the fantasist spends all his time fantasising about helping, healing and saving people, but will never act on his fantasies. Would you say such a man is morally admirable? If you wouldn't call him morally admirable, then why do you call the man who dreams about the reverse morally depraved?"

I think the answer is clear: no one thinks that one is morally admirable for thinking good thoughts alone, though we can probably think of exceptions to this. I think that changing the thought experiment around a bit will bring out the distinction. Imagine two people, Bill and Bob, both paralyzed from the kneck down. Both treat those around them in the same way, but Bill does so because he's a genuinely nice person, while Bob does so only because he has to rely on them. So neither actually harms anyone -- not physically because they're both incapable, and not mentally because they both treat everyone kindly (though for different reasons). Now imagine that Bill, while he is paralyzed, does nothing but think about helping others, and regrets being paralyzed because he is no longer able to do good (assume that he is in fact no able to help anyone in any way). Bob, on the other hand, does nothing but think about harming others, and regrets being paralyzed because he can no longer cause suffering (remember, he won't treat those around him badly because of his own self interest). Again, we have a situation in which two people exhibit the same behavior, but have very different values and desires, and in each case are only constrained from acting on those desires because of their physical inability to do so. According to you, we could not say that one is more or less moral than the other, but it seems to me that this is absurd. As I showed earlier, immorality or evil or wrongness or moral depravity (or whatever term you prefer to use) cannot be understood in terms of causing suffering alone. Something else is at work here, and I'd suggest that it has something to do with desires and values. But I think your example of the man who thinks about performing moral acts but never acts upon them actually strengthens my case: such a man would be something like a Don Quixote (in the sense that his good and noble acts are imaginary), and we think very differently about Don Quixote than we do about the sort of man who spends all his time contemplating harming children, even if he never acts on those desires in any way.

I have to go to a birthday party now, so I'll address your other points later.

Paul C said...

This is starting to get confusing, so I am breaking up my response.

1a. There is a difference between persuading someone that something is right, and showing (demonstrating, etc.) that something is right.

1b.Why would you demonstrate a moral argument to somebody if you weren't trying to persuade them it was right, and how would you persuade someone that a moral argument was right if you didn't demonstrate it to them?

2a. For example, I may not be able to persuade someone that, given certain axioms and certain principles of logic, Euclid's Fifth Proposition follows, but that doesn't in any way affect the validity of Euclid's argument.

2b. We haven't yet established that moral laws are on a par with mathematical propositions, so your analogy doesn't stand up, particularly when addressing somebody who actually rejects the idea that moral laws can ever have such a standing.

3a. In other words, there's no contradiction involved in saying "The argument is in fact sound, but so-and-so is not persuaded, i.e. doesn't think it's sound."

3b. If you had a moral argument that you believed to be sound, yet you were completely unable to persuade anybody else that it was sound, what practical difference does it make if it's sound or not?

4a. Take your pick of any specific Nazi moral principle (not pseudo-science, and not politics alone), and go from there. The particular principle isn't important; any will do.

4b. No, I think the particular principle is important, because I don't actually know what you mean by a "Nazi moral principle". So perhaps it would be best if you specify what you mean, and discussion can proceed from there.

5a. I think the answer is clear: no one thinks that one is morally admirable for thinking good thoughts alone, though we can probably think of exceptions to this.

5b. Yet you do think that people can be morally depraved for thinking "evil" thoughts alone - why?

6a. According to you, we could not say that one is more or less moral than the other, but it seems to me that this is absurd.

6b. It might seem to you that this is absurd, but has it occurred to you that perhaps it's your intuition that it's absurd that is wrong?

7a. As I showed earlier, immorality or evil or wrongness or moral depravity (or whatever term you prefer to use) cannot be understood in terms of causing suffering alone. Something else is at work here, and I'd suggest that it has something to do with desires and values.

7b. Could you show me the exact argument where you've shown this? As far as I can see from reading over your comments, you've said that you believe this to be the case, but you've not actually provided any convincing demonstration of moral depravity that doesn't fit this description. For example, you found it absurd that I wouldn't draw a distinction between your two hypothetical neighbours, but you haven't explained why it is absurd - it just seems that way to you. If you think that "something else is at work... to do with desires and values", then you'll need to be more explicit about what that something is.

8a. But I think your example of the man who thinks about performing moral acts but never acts upon them actually strengthens my case: such a man would be something like a Don Quixote (in the sense that his good and noble acts are imaginary), and we think very differently about Don Quixote than we do about the sort of man who spends all his time contemplating harming children, even if he never acts on those desires in any way.

8b. I can't see how this example strengthens your case. Let me introduce you to another hypothetical neighbour. He is a man who spends all his time contemplating harming children, but who believes that such thoughts are wrong and - by a heroic effort of will - restrains himself from ever acting on them, despite huge personal cost. I would find such a man admirable - yet he harbours obscene fantasies identical to the neighbour who is constrained only his own cowardice, and so, by the standards that you offer, I would have to treat each of them as equally morally depraved.

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