Can Evil Exist Without God?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Many skeptics of Christianity claim that the existence of evil in the world proves that a good God cannot exist.  I believe this viewpoint is exactly backwards.

If you truly believe that there is evil in the world, then you must believe that there is good in the world as well.  We can’t know what is wrong unless we know what is right.  We can’t know a crooked line unless we know a straight line.  We can’t know injustice unless we know justice.

But if there is real good and real evil in the world, then there must be an ultimate standard, a measuring stick by which to judge goodness and badness.  This measuring stick must be perfect, so that all moral activity can be compared to it, just like determining the straightness of any line requires a perfectly straight line by which to compare.

Here is the argument summarized in short from:

  1. evil implies good
  2. good implies a perfect standard by which to define it

Now, if you believe that there exists real, objective evil in the world – evil that any person from any place or time would agree is really evil – then you are stuck with admitting that there must be a perfect standard of goodness also in existence, a moral law.

Where does this perfect standard of goodness come from?  The Christian answer is that this standard originates in the nature of God.  God’s own nature is the perfect standard of good, and God has always existed as the first cause of everything.

If you’re a person who wants to escape this answer, you can claim that this moral law just sort of exists, like a floating “cloud” of goodness that just permeates the universe.  But the Christian can ask: “Where did this floating ‘cloud’ of goodness come from?”

You could say that the objective moral law, the perfect standard of goodness, comes from blind, purposeless, natural processes (the standard atheist account of everything that exists).  The Christian can ask: “Why should anyone feel obliged to follow and obey a perfect moral standard that comes from atoms randomly banging together over billions of years?”

I don’t think there is a good answer to that question.  The person who wants to affirm the existence of evil while denying the existence of God finds himself caught in a deep hole of irrationality.  He asks us to obey moral laws that come from rocks.

Some atheists, like Nietzsche, saw where this hole was leading and bailed out quickly.  They affirmed that there is no such thing as real moral evil in the world.  What we think is evil is really just our personal preferences.  You like to kill people and I don’t.  I like red and you like blue.

The consistent person who wants to affirm the existence of evil really must affirm the existence of a personal moral lawgiver – God.  If you don’t think God exists, then you should stop complaining about all the evil in the world.  You’re not making any sense.

  • jasonseneca

    This is a fairly well-written argument, but I see a few flaws in your logic.

    Firstly, the Riddle of Epicurus (the original formulation of the argument you’re referencing) does not simply state that the existence of evil disproves the existence of a good God. It states that evil is inconsistent with any god who is both all-powerful and perfectly benevolent. This problem, and its defenses, have been debated for millennia.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_evil

    Secondly, whether or not objective evil exists depends largely on how we define that term. Many people (myself included) would contend that evil exists not as a thing unto itself, but as a description of human actions. Simply put, “evil” is an adjective, not a noun.

    Thirdly, your ontological argument for the existence of an ultimate moral standard is flawed. I don’t need a theoretical concept of perfect goodness to describe something as good any more than I need to understand “perfect hotness” to call something hot or “an ultimate standard of hunger” to know that I’m hungry.

    Lastly, the moral argument you present does nothing to prove the true existence of an absolute lawgiver. It merely questions why non-believers act morally. Taking the presumed failure to answer as evidence of your point is accepting an Argument from Ignorace.
    http://www.fallacyfiles.org/ignorant.html

    For the record, the non-theistic arguments for moral behavior are many, including Utilitarianism, Humanism, the Social Contract, and Vedic Karma.

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  • The “Epicurian argument” (that, given the existence of evil, any supposed Deity cannot be both benevolent and all-powerful) misses a third possibility.

    If the world is not static, but changeable (and this is must be granted before there is any talk of changing anything), then such change may be in either past, present, or future.
    The fact that evil now exists rules out only one of those temporal possibilities. If God wishes to abolish evil, and is competent to do so, that abolition may be either in the future, referred to throughout the old testament as “the day of the Lord,” or it may now be in process. The Christian view is of just such an in-process time.
    One can dislike each of these views for esthetic reasons, or because we think it would be better to have evil simply obliterated in the blink of an eye. But the idea that God must not be able to do something because it has not already been completed is rather illogical.

    Whatever one thinks of the Judeo/Christian story, the possibility must be acknowledged that God could intend another method for the elimination of evil, than by simply obliterating it. My own interpretation of the story of Noah and the flood is exactly to that point: If God took the course of destroying evil every time it occurred, He would be no closer to a perfected world. Almost the first story out of the arc has evil picking right up and continuing. Simple removal of evil elements changes nothing. Perhaps humans should be made incapable of evil intentions. Great. Rocks are incapable of evil thoughts. Assuming God intends something with more autonomy, that won’t do. Perhaps all consequences of evil actions should be countered and rendered ineffective? Is that likely to improve the condition of my will, or just raise my frustration level?

    I think it likely that assuming the conditions the “Epicurian argument” does, the existence of a God or gods, and the existence of evil, the resolution of human evil involves process, not executive fiat. If so, some time must be within that process. Unless we also postulate a world in which all possible changes have already happened, the there is no logical reason to reject the idea that that time is now.

    ————

    Simply put, “evil” is an adjective, not a noun.

    I think I am not in much disagreement from you here, but I don’t see the point of the objection. The heart of my semi-agreement on this point is that I regard “existence” as a characteristic of a self-existent creator, and therefore, a “good” bestowed upon the created thing. For “evil” to be a noun, a thing with existence, raises an entirely different can of worms, although a very profitable meditation. I rather think that as long as a thing exists, no matter how corrupted, it still contains at least that much of a spark of the glory of the creator, and thus not in itself wholly evil. Perhaps part of the evil is doing such violence of corruption to a thing that still retains something of the Glory of God.
    -But all that is an aside-

    —–

    I don’t need a theoretical concept of perfect goodness to describe something as good any more than I need to understand “perfect hotness” to call something hot or “an ultimate standard of hunger” to know that I’m hungry.

    Perhaps, but in your examples, “hotness” or “hunger” implies that we judge an experience or condition as being along a continuum, and compare one point to another, without necessarily including a value judgment. But I’m not so sure that works as well for “hunger”. Are we measuring one experience of hunger against another, or are we comparing it to the experience of satiation? I would think that this more closely parallels the example of straight v. crooked. “Crooked” or “Hunger” is not seen primarily as comparison just with other degrees, more or less crooked or hungry, but as contrast with some absolute, either satiation, or straightness. This, I think is the sense use for Good and Evil; not just comparison of degree, but nearness or distance of approach to a defined point.

    ——-

    Lastly, the moral argument you present does nothing to prove the true existence of an absolute lawgiver. It merely questions why non-believers act morally. Taking the presumed failure to answer as evidence of your point is accepting an Argument from Ignorance.

    I think you are reasonable in asserting that an argument from ignorance cannot be primary argument, it is circumstantial rather than definitive. But the question remains from your last point; if we grant that “good” is a direction on a continuum and not an absolute, then what do we mean by calling that direction “good”? That it conforms to some external criteria? If so, why is that criteria not the true continuum? Without some external standard, no matter from where it originates, so long it is not from us, the judgement of “Good” becomes self- referential. It is called good, because it is good. That is either meaningless, or it is total truth relying on conformity to an actual standard of good.
    It would remain to the non-theist to pose a credible source for such a standard that is not circular.

  • Bill Pratt

    Hi Jason,
    Thanks for your response. Eric has already given some excellent answers to your points, but I thought I would also add a few things to the discussion.

    First, your point that evil is an adjective and not a noun does not hurt the argument. The word “evil” can be used a noun or an adjective. Consider these two sentences: “The evil of his actions are apparent” or “His evil actions are apparent.” One sentence uses “evil” as a noun and the other as an adjective. In both cases, the word “evil” is referring to a property of moral actions. It is the existence of the property to which the argument refers. I could go back in the argument and replace every usage of “evil” as a noun with “evil” as an adjective and the argument still comes to the same conclusion.

    In fact, you mention “hotness” later in your post. “Hotness” is expressed by the adjective “hot.” I can refer to the hotness of an object or I can say the object is hot. In both cases, there must exist a real property of hotness for the sentences to make any sense.

    Second, you do need an objective measure of good if you agree that goodness is an objective property that all people in all times can use to describe anything as good. There must be a goodness measuring stick.

    You use the example of hotness and claim you don’t need to have an objective standard of hotness to understand that something is hot. But that is just not correct. There is an objective measure of hotness, and the device used to take the measurement is the thermometer. We have an objective standard for measuring heat that everyone refers to. Hotness is not just a purely subjective term that refers to no standard.

    You also mention hunger. Hunger is a term that a person uses to describe a real, objective condition – that of having an empty stomach. The objective standard is how empty a person’s stomach is. If I say I’m hungry, I’m saying that my stomach is empty. That is an objective standard.

    Likewise, it makes no sense to talk about the goodness of something unless there is a standard of good. What is the measuring stick of goodness? If there isn’t a measuring stick that transcends all times and places, then we cannot be referring to a real property that applies to all people. We are only referring to a purely subjective property that changes from person to person.

    The anti-theist cannot have it both ways. Either they accept that there must exist a real moral standard or measuring stick, or they accept that good and evil are purely subjective terms that cannot be understood as being applied to all people at all times and places. If they are subjective terms, you can never compare two people’s actions as there is no standard to which both refer to.

    Finally, the argument does prove a lawgiver if you accept the premises, which are that good and evil exist as objective properties that describe moral actions. If you deny that good and evil are objective properties that describe moral actions, then you can deny the conclusion. Most skeptics I know try to affirm the premises and deny the conclusion, a position which is incoherent. Until the skeptic of theism can explain the source of the moral law in adequate terms, the argument stands.

  • jasonseneca

    A few points…

    I’m intrigued by Eric’s temporal solution to Problem of Evil, but I don’t see how it solves the riddle. The proposed elimination of evil at some point in the future does not mitigate the fact that evil does exist here and now. God’s supposed omnipotence implies timelessness. Why, then, would evil exist anywhere in creation, regardless of temporality?

    I see that the use of “evil” as an adjective or a noun is not germane in the context that you use the word. I didn’t mean this as an objection. Rather I wanted to clarify that we were talking about “evil” as a descriptive term rather than “Evil” as a force of nature. I agree with the first usage, but not with the latter.

    I still disagree with the stance that evil cannot be judged without comparing it to some transcendental standard. To extend the analogy, “hotness” is a qualitative property that cannot be defined without a reference point, but there is no ultimate standard of “hotness” by which to judge. We are forced to compare temperatures to arbitrary standards. I describe a room as hot if it is warm enough to make me uncomfortable. Astrophysicists describe red dwarf stars as cool, despite having surface temperatures of several thousand degrees. Even thermometers are calibrated to arbitrary standards. (Phase change temperatures of water for Celcius; human body temperature and the stabilization temperature of brine for Fahrenheit.) The word “hot” has no meaning if divorced of context, and no ultimate standard of “hotness” exists to compare it to. It strikes me that the words “evil” and “good” functions in much the same manner.

    Lastly, I agree that a person should be able to justify their own system of morality, and I supplied several examples of non-theistic moral systems in my previous post. In my opinion, each of these systems has its own merits and flaws. Having said that, the ability or inability of any person to provide an alternative to theistic morality cannot be taken as evidence for the same. This would be akin to me asking you how the pyramids were built, then claiming that your inability to provide an answer proves that aliens did it. This is obviously a non-validating form of argument. For your conclusion to truly follow from your premises, your argument must stand on its own merits, not on the strengths or weaknesses of any other person’s argument. To do otherwise is fallacy.

  • David Coultous

    Hi, Interesting discussion.

    I don’t understand why you feel the need to infer a perfect standard of good by which to judge good and evil. Good and evil are human terms, and do not need to exist outside of human reference. Is star formation good or evil? Objectively that’s a meaningless question. In a human frame of reference you could reply that it was ‘good’ as without it we wouldn’t be here. But outside of a human frame of reference there is no answer.

    Humans have a sense of ‘good’ and ‘evil’; and although there has never been a consensus view of an ‘absolute’ standard, there is a general correlation. ‘Good’ correlates with helping people, ‘evil’ correlates with harming them. [Moral dilemmas (beloved of theologians and philosophers) occur when helping A harms B or harming A helps B.]
    This view of good and evil is more or less shared by humanity at large (which is why we all tend to mostly agree on moral matters).

    Evil, I would argue, is not an objective judgement of human actions, but a *human* judgement of human actions. and a judgement that, by and large follow the correlation I mentioned earlier.

    Thus IMHO, you build a strawman argument.

    “You could say that the objective moral law, the perfect standard of goodness, comes from blind, purposeless, natural processes (the standard atheist account of everything that exists).”

    Here you presuppose an objective moral law (or a belief in one) when there are perfectly reasonable ones purely relative to human experience (help=good,harm=evil); ones that are quite natural to expect to be developed by a socially cooperative and reciprocally dependent species such as ours.

    ” The Christian can ask: “Why should anyone feel obliged to follow and obey a perfect moral standard that comes from atoms randomly banging together over billions of years?” ”

    Its not a question of “should” we feel obliged, just that we *do* feel obliged. Our sense of right and wrong, and our (imperfect) imperative to follow it are mostly instinctive. We do not (often) rationalise about it from a remove when acting. We just act on what we feel to be right (or we act in our own selfish interests, but at least know that what we are doing is ‘wrong’ as it harms others).

    “The person who wants to affirm the existence of evil while denying the existence of God finds himself caught in a deep hole of irrationality. He asks us to obey moral laws that come from rocks.”

    This is the strawman. To recognise ‘evil’ does not need a recognition of an absolute evil, just one relative to human experience.
    The ‘moral laws’ do not come from rocks, but from humans; from society at large, and the general necessity of our social existence. We can’t all harm each other or society would not function. We must help each other as we cannot survive alone. When someone harms others to help themselves, society as a whole sees this as ‘wrong’ (the word evil is usally reserved for extreme cases). When someone helps others society sees this as ‘good’.

    Thanks for providing the forum,

    Peace (and Happy Christmas)

    David

  • Bill Pratt

    Jason,
    Thanks for your reply. I want to get back to the comparison of hotness to good and evil. You used examples of one person describing a room as hot and another person describing a red dwarf as cool in order to prove that the standard of heat is context dependent. In other words, these two people are not applying the same standard of heat.

    But that is not the case with evil. One of the premises of my argument is that when two different people refer to moral evil, they expect each other to understand what they each mean. They don’t think that context is necessary. In fact, when two people from completely different times and places both say that torturing babies is evil, they both are saying the same thing. There is not a contextual difference, such as there was with the two people referring to hotness. They both mean that a person ought not torture a baby, that it’s wrong.

    People all over the world talk about good and evil as if we all are using the same standard, so the standard cannot be contextual, but must be transcendent. Again, you can deny the premise that all humans can talk about certain good and evil acts and understand each other, but then you are back to claiming good and evil are just subjective opinions and that two people cannot compare their feelings on good and evil until they first agree to adopt the context of one person or the other. That is an escape, but you give up an awful lot for that escape. If good and evil are just subjective feelings for each individual, then any comparison of morality between individuals, nations, and time periods is pure folly.

  • Bill Pratt

    Hi David,
    Thanks for the comments. Please allow me to respond,

    It seems to me that morality is clearly prescriptive. It tells us what we ought to do or should do. Yet, you describe morality as simply descriptive. We just feel some things are good and some are evil. But you are completely leaving out the prescriptive element, and so your explanation of morality is extremely deficient and flies in the face of what most people know about morality.

    After all, if moral feelings just describe and do not prescribe, then we are under no obligation to follow them and can do whatever we each want.

    In addition, if moral feelings come from evolution of some sort, then how do you explain the fact that some people feel it is OK to rape women or abuse children? Evolution provided their moral feelings as well as everyone else’s and you have already said that morality is just descriptive, so how can you ever say that those people are wrong in any way?

    By the way, even though you claim that there is not prescription (shouldness or oughtness) in morality, you snuck it in at the end of your post. You, in effect, said that we should not harm each other or society would not function, and that we should help each other as we cannot survive alone. Where do these “should’s” come from?

    David, perhaps I’ve misunderstood you, but it seems that you have dropped the oughtness in morality, and I think this undermines any system of morality greatly. I look forward to your further thoughts and many thanks for getting me to think at 9 o’clock at night!

    God bless,
    Bill

  • I think if I were to grant everything that Jason and David say – If I were to lay down, for the sake of discussion, any idea of an absolute standard of “Good”, or even any transcendent being, all-benevolent and interested and active in the affairs of humans, I think one serious problem remains. And that is to define terms.

    You say again that hotness is such a continuum that has no real appeal to any absolute (save absolute zero, and that is really a technical observation that is probably irrelevant for this discussion). We can understand that one thing is hotter than another, and even quantify how much hotter, We use terms like “Hot” or “Cool” to either measure against or expectation, or against other examples of a similar sort (like stars), or even against our own private preferences (as in “this room is hot”). Ultimately, we even know what we mean by “heat” and know that, at a very elementary level, that it is the energy released by vibrating molecules inside a substance, and can predict its interaction with other substances through thermodynamics. In none of this do we make reference to some external standard of perfect heat, or even to the real standard of perfect cold.

    But what do we mean by “Good?”

    Is the direction along the continuum meaningful? When I say, “John was pretty bad as a kid, but he is getting better” am I simply saying that John’s current behavior pleases me more than his past behavior? If you disagree, and say “I don’t think he’s better at all! He just fakes it to get along!” is your disagreement something real, or is it more of the nature of “I like apples, but you prefer bananas.”? Is good a real direction (if not an absolute), and if so, what is it? Why is it “Good” to help others? Because most cultures agree? Why is it good to follow the opinion of the majority – etc. Even if we acknowledge that something innate in all humans bears witness that “x” is good, why is it good to refrain from what I actually want, now, out of preference to some meaningless instinct?
    If someone protests that this instinct is not meaningless, I have to respond “By what standard” – and we are right back at the beginning.

    Or perhaps you would say that It is good because society gets on better if such things are observed. I of course agree with you, but why should I care that society gets on better? Or is it that “Good” = “That which is useful”? And who decides in that unpleasant calculation?

    I am still lost in finding a understanding of “good”, even as a direction and not an absolute, that is not ultimately circular, or another way of saying “that which pleases me”

    Blessings!
    -R. Eric Sawyer

  • I noticed that I had failed to address one issue, and were I to actually ignore it, I fear that I may be justly accused of playing Ostrich about the most difficult issue. And Jason, I think your point here is the most troublesome of all for my side.
    You ask

    ”The proposed elimination of evil at some point in the future does not mitigate the fact that evil does exist here and now. God’s supposed omnipotence implies timelessness. Why, then, would evil exist anywhere in creation, regardless of temporality? “

    Not just what is evil, but *why* is evil? Given that evil exists, when it could have been disallowed, what are we to think about God? Some would say that God did not create evil, and will heal it; but I doubt that will help. If God did not create evil, He certainly created a universe in which evil could arise. I think that ultimately, He is responsible.

    Even more of a problem for me is that the answer other Christians would give me, or which I would give them is, I suspect, of very little potency here. They would tell me that the answer to the existence of evil is God himself; not just in theory, but in practice. I have ample reason to trust the beneficence of God, and can rest comfortably with leaving this question of ultimate purpose in the heart of Him who loves me enough to suffer death for me. That answer would suffice perfectly for me, and for most Christians. But I can understand well enough its poverty for a non-Christian. So I must reach beyond my own understanding, and I think beyond the limits of possible understanding. But I’ll give it a shot.

    When we say that evil (noun or adjective) exists, and that such existence is incompatible with a good God, we are presuming to know the reason for its existence – particularly that it represents a flaw, or failure of “Good.” It exists in opposition to the will of beneficent Deity, as a crack may appear in the wall of a house. The builder may repair it; but if he was a good builder, why did it crack in the first place? If we are to describe God as I do, that He is all good, all wise, all powerful, etc., then it is unavoidable to think that the existence of evil (if only for a season) must somehow be in accordance to His plan, at least, it must be an unavoidable corollary to His purpose. About that, I have only hints, and no clear vision other from the character of God as I have come to understand Him.

    If He intends to create a being that is in some meaningful way “like Himself” as the Genesis accounts describe, that being must be capable of independent, effectual choice. He (or we) must be able to love, because we choose to love, and not because we are hard-wired for it, or because it suites our self-interest. That requires that we have alternatives from which to choose. It also requires that the natural results of those choices be realized, and not truncated because those results are harmful, or “evil.” For me, one of the clearest demonstrations of this in the Bible is that in the story of the Garden of Eden, which was perfect, there was a source of temptation and opportunity for evil right in its very midst; right in the middle of what God called “very good”

    It seems inescapable to me that this whole episode of the fall into evil, its effects, and our deliverance from that evil must somehow be a necessary part of the process by which He is making a creature “ like himself” (or “ in our image”). Why? I don’t know. Perhaps it is tied in to Jung’s description of the two great tasks of life: that of discovering that the universe is separate from the self, and then discovering that all is interconnected. Perhaps the story of the prodigal son from Jesus reveals more, in that the path the prodigal walked produces a much different character in that son, than in the one who stayed at home.

    I wish I could produce a more satisfactory answer, As I said, the only one that fully satisfies me is that I know I can trust God in the things that are hard for me to grasp.
    I trust, like Julian of Norwich, that at the end of all things, I will look back and know that all He did was good.

    Blessings!
    -R. Eric Sawyer

  • jasonseneca

    Back again, Bill,

    I have to say I disagree with the contention that moral judgments are not context dependent. My initial reaction was that different people from different cultures can judge the same action to have different moral values. (The practice of human slavery springs to mind.) On further thought, however, I don’t see this as a valid objection. It is entirely possible that one (or both) of our hypothetical judges is simply wrong.

    More to the point is the question of whether or not any two people would agree on the meaning of the word “evil”. That is, when a 19th-century abolitionist calls slavery evil, does he mean the same thing as a 7th-century Zoroastrian who calls Angra Mainyu (the embodiment of chaos) evil? I think it’s obvious that they do not. I don’t think it’s enough to simply state that they both think it’s “wrong”, as this is merely a restatement of the same point. Defining an evil act as “something we shouldn’t do” is tautological. To understand whether two people mean the same thing by calling something evil, we must look at the rationale behind that designation.

    To use your example, when a humanist says that torturing babies is evil, they mean that torturing babies does harm to an innocent human. When a Christian says the same thing, they mean that the act defies God’s will. To a Utilitarian, the act deprives society of a healthy citizen. To a Taoist, the action interrupts the flow of chi. To a Hindu, it denies both the infant and the torturer their karmic destinies.

    In short, two people can mean very different things when they describe the same act as “evil”. That description requires some point of reference, but the reference need not be transcendent. This does not, however, render good and evil subjective. These terms can still be determined objectively, given a frame of reference, in the same way that “hotness” can be objectively determined given a point of comparison.

    The question then remains: which reference point (if any) is the correct one? On a personal level, I don’t pretend to be a spiritual guide or moral compass for any other person. I adhere to the simple rules that David mentioned above, and have espoused them in that exact formulation many times over. The principles of help and harm are the most parsimonious formulations of moral law I can imagine. They generally segue in outcome with nearly every moral system ever devised by humans, both religious and secular. Moreover, they feel right intuitively and subjectively. As the universe did not come with instructions on the back, I feel that may be the best that we humans, with our finite perception and reason, can do.

    A side note to Eric:
    Firstly, thanks for the honesty and thought that you put into your response.

    I am largely familiar with the apologetics of free will. Typically, the responses I have encountered to such arguments fall into two broad categories.

    The first group is largely semantic. If God is truly omnipotent, then he should be able to achieve any goal, even one that may seem paradoxical. Thus, if God wishes to create beings with free will whilst still avoiding evil, he should be able to do so. Our own inability as fallible humans to imagine such a scenario should not preclude an omnipotent God from accomplishing it.

    The second group of arguments generally reinterpret “evil” in a broader sense to include all human suffering, anthropogenic or not. The existence of disease, natural disasters, and the like is not explicable by free will, unless we appeal to the “fall of man”. We are then left with the sticky problem of original sin and all the legalism that implies: “sins of the father”, unbaptized babies, those who haven’t heard the gospel, the “Eskimo and the Missionary” conundrum, etc. etc. etc.

    Of course, it is questionable whether we can legitimately apply the word “evil” outside the context of human actions, in which case we have to reframe Epicurus’ argument to treat “human suffering” instead of “evil” and start all over.

    Frankly, this is why I typically avoid the Problem of Evil altogether. As I am not a theist, I don’t feel compelled to answer it. Further, I believe it is largely unnecessary. There are much better arguments in support of non-theism, at least from an aesthetic standpoint.

    In the end, this is a matter of faith, as all sound religious arguments seem to be. In your words, you trust in God’s beneficence. I don’t. I make it a point to never assail such positions, though, as it inevitably leads to impasse and frustration. Having said that, I hope, sincerely, that your faith brings you happiness. Thank you again for your excellent thoughts.

  • Bill Pratt

    “Defining an evil act as “something we shouldn’t do” is tautological.”

    Jason, I don’t see this at all. I am saying that people from different times and places can all point to torturing a baby, and say, in effect, “That behavior is wrong. A person should not do that.” This as opposed to being indifferent or even judging the behavior as something that should be done. We can line up ancient Greeks, modern Hindus, medieval Chinese, and they all would agree.

    That is absolutely remarkable, considering that morality has supposedly been evolving ever since humans arrived on the scene. It completely flies in the face of what we would expect. How is it that human beings can agree on basic moral principles, while being separated by time and place. To the theist, this is totally predictable, but to the non-theist, it is not at all expected.

    When you list all the divergent reasons various people would judge torturing a child evil, you miss the point. You are asking these people to explain why they have these feelings or intuitions of evil. You are asking them to explain the implications of their shared moral sensibility. I agree that those explanations will differ from person to person, but I am talking about the primary moral intuition they have, not the secondary explanations and implications of those moral intuitions. It is amazing that you and I both recognize evil. The fact that we explain that recognition in different ways is interesting, but beside the point I am trying to make.

    I am glad that you follow a set of moral values that you think are the most parsimonious formulations of moral law. Unfortunately, you are following these principles with no idea where they ultimately came from and so your system of ethics is ultimately ungrounded. It cannot be used to forge a common good, because it only applies to you. Others may choose different paths, and you are unable to ever critique them. I wonder if you really live this way, or do you find yourself rendering absolute moral judgments just like the rest of us? If not, I applaud you for being true to your system.

    Again, as Eric said, if there is no transcendent moral standard, then we are left with moral relativism and no universal reference. Objective moral judgments can no longer be made, as morality is a matter of contextual opinion. As far as I can tell, you would agreed with that point, but you are comfortable living in that world.

    Jason, thank you for presenting your viewpoint clearly, intelligently, and with decorum. You are welcome back to this blog any time.

    God bless you (whether you believe in him or not),
    Bill

  • David Coultous

    Hi Bill

    From your reply to Jason, you seem to agree with me that there is a (mostly) common intuition of good and bad amongst people, even if the secondary explanations differ amongst cultures and individuals. What we disagree about is where this common intuition comes from.

    You say it comes from what, to me, IS your secondary explanation of it (your idea of God’s will). A Hindu could say it ultimately comes from the Karmic arguments Jason mentions. Once again we are in the realms of everyone having a different rationalisation of similar feelings. Now, i don’t doubt that you strongly believe in your rationalisation, but then so does the Hindu. It seems, however, circular to me to take one of these rationalisations as the ultimate explanation. I understand you will diagree with me on this point, but this is how I see it. You may feel my ‘rationalisation’ suffers the same fate, but I feel it is more evidence based, given studies of ‘morality’ in other species, particularly that in other social primates. I am trying to find an explanation, rather than a rationalisation. Perhaps this is why it feels purely “descriptive” to you.

    I think this common intuition comes from our evolved sense of right and wrong (which has been evolving not just since humans came on the scene, as you say, but throughout our evolutionary history; at what point our ancestors became ‘human’ is debateable). Thus I am not as suprised as you that an evolved sense of morality would show much commonality amongst humans throughout history and culture, from the ‘Ancient’ Greeks you mention (who only hail from a few thousand years ago, very recent in human existence, let alone on our evoutionary path), to modern folk of all backgrounds.

    There is much commonality about ideas of right and wrong amongst humans (though still much discrepancy – otherwise ‘good’ people believed in the rightness of slavery for example in the not too recent past), and I can see why this may lead you to believe in an absolute right and wrong. However, I feel this commonality is common merely to our species, (having evolved with us, and having reached this commonality before, or as, we became human), and has no meaning outside of human experience.

    To take an example that has been brought up in this thread. I strongly believe torturing babies is wrong. You do so too. The vast majority of people (thankfully) do as well. There may be a handful who do not, but they are generally ostracised by society, and punished if they actually torture babies. In human terms it is perfectly valid to say that torturing babies is completely and utterly wrong. We shouldn’t do it.
    Cockroaches, however, regularly eat their young. Is this right or wrong? The question has no real meaning. It is natural behaviour for cockroaches. I don’t feel like holding cockroaches to human moral standards. Do you? Of course, a cockroach has no capability of formulating morality. When infanticide occurs in species closer to us (e.g. lions, and even more so, primates) then we start to feel that it seems ‘wrong’ even though perfectly natural. Even then we generally agree that the animals concerned are not ‘evil’, just following their natural behaviour.

    As for the “prescriptive” element, I think it is implicit in the use of the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as opposed to the simply descriptive ‘helpful’ and ‘harmful’. We feel an instinctive prescriptive feeling, and the morality we feel is generally ‘enforced’ by the group, all of whom share similar feelings. An evolved morality could never evolve if there was not a prescriptive element (as to be selected for it must have a ‘functional’ effect, which is missing if it is just descriptive and not prescriptive). Our feeling that we ‘ought’ to do ‘right’, and others’ feelings that we ought to, make us make decisions in the interest of the group in a statistically significant proportion of cases.

    Why “should” we obey this natural morality? There is no objective reason, but we do certainly feel that we ought to, as do those around us (we all keep each other honest). This behaviour (including the presctive element) has evolved, as it serves an important functional purpose in holding our social groups together.

    I doubt you’ll agree with me, but I would be interested in your views.

    All the best

    David

  • William Duke

    What in the heck is natural morality? If there is such a thing why don’t animals have it? Why haven’t they “evolved” such a thing? Are they missing the jean? They have instincts and if morality is instinctive “We feel an instinctive prescriptive feeling” and a process of evolution, how do you explain that animals are completely bereft of this obviously very important feature that human beings arguably possess across all racial, cultural, linguistic and environmental lines? Please do tell how oughts and shoulds (which are not material) are passed on in the genes through natural selection (which is a material process) into the ones we presently adhere to. If this is the case, why is there total agreement across all human beings that it is wrong to torture babies? If evolution were true, wouldn’t there be variations on this theme for human beings as is the case for animals? As mentioned previously not all animals refrain from harming their own young and yet they can thrive in the natural world. So why would human beings be obliged to follow this principle (natural morality) if in fact it does not follow that it is necessarily beneficial to the species? What is so important about holding our groups together if in nature other groups (animals) are perfectly naturally healthy and thriving without any type of group pressure (to not harm their babies), and meanwhile survive as a species quite nicely? Isn’t that the only supposed good of the neo-darwinian blind-watchmaker thesis – the survival of the species?

  • David Coultous

    Hi William

    >>>
    What in the heck is natural morality? If there is such a thing why don’t animals have it? … how do you explain that animals are completely bereft of this obviously very important feature … ?
    <<>>
    Please do tell how oughts and shoulds (which are not material) are passed on in the genes through natural selection (which is a material process) into the ones we presently adhere to.
    <<>>
    If this is the case, why is there total agreement across all human beings that it is wrong to torture babies? If evolution were true, wouldn’t there be variations on this theme for human beings as is the case for animals?
    <<>>
    As mentioned previously not all animals refrain from harming their own young and yet they can thrive in the natural world. So why would human beings be obliged to follow this principle (natural morality) if in fact it does not follow that it is necessarily beneficial to the species?
    <<>>
    What is so important about holding our groups together if in nature other groups (animals) are perfectly naturally healthy and thriving without any type of group pressure (to not harm their babies), and meanwhile survive as a species quite nicely?
    <<>>
    Isn’t that the only supposed good of the neo-darwinian blind-watchmaker thesis – the survival of the species?
    <<<
    This is the fallacy that the theory of evolution by natrual selection is somehow a moral code. This mistake is made by many opponents of evolution and also by the so called "social Darwinists". Evolution may help us understand where morality came from, but it itself is not a moral code. It says nothing about 'good' and 'evil', 'right' or 'wrong'. It is simply the idea that the differential survival probabilities across genetic variation in a population can lead to the population evolving over generations in various directions. One of the things which has evolved (in the proto-human to human population) is the sense of 'right' and 'wrong' that we have. This sense guides our social behaviour, and enables us to live the way we do. Our imperative to follow this sense is, unfortuantely, imperfect, as the optimal strategy within this social framework we have evolved appears to be to be good most of the time, but to occasionaly act selfishly when we can get away with it. You would say, I imagine, that we are all sinners. I would say that, wheras we all have a common understaing of 'right' and 'wrong', we do not always act in accordance to it. This is not a conscious strategy, but human nature, as produced by our evolutionary history.

    All the best

    David

  • David Coultous

    Hi William

    What in the heck is natural morality? If there is such a thing why don’t animals have it? … how do you explain that animals are completely bereft of this obviously very important feature … ?
    ====
    You assume that animals have no morality, indeed are ‘completely bereft’ of it. If you read up on the behabiour of social animals generally (particularly the more intelligent ones) I think you will find you are mistaken. They do not have the same ‘morality’ we do, but you could not get socially cooperative species such as great apes and dolphins without something roughly corresponding to what we call ‘morality’.

    Please do tell how oughts and shoulds (which are not material) are passed on in the genes through natural selection (which is a material process) into the ones we presently adhere to.
    ===
    I’m not an expert in ethology, but I am aware that behaviour is genetically determined, at least in part. I suggest you investigate the scientific literature.

    If this is the case, why is there total agreement across all human beings that it is wrong to torture babies? If evolution were true, wouldn’t there be variations on this theme for human beings as is the case for animals?
    ===
    Because this is the morality our species has evolved. I don’t understand why you feel evolution should neccessarily produce variations amongst humans. As you say, there is variation on the theme across different species of animals. We are one of those animal species and our behaviour is one of those variations on the theme. I don’t see a problem here.

    As mentioned previously not all animals refrain from harming their own young and yet they can thrive in the natural world. So why would human beings be obliged to follow this principle (natural morality) if in fact it does not follow that it is necessarily beneficial to the species?
    ===
    You assume the fallacy that all animals would have evolved the same strategy. Cockroaches and most fish produce large numbers of young, then have no further investment in them after the act of laying eggs. In fact, they will even eat their young if they have the chance, in the same way they eat any small insect/fish. Human beings have a very different strategy. We have very few young and we invest heavily in those we do produce. The protection of our young is extremely important to us because of our reproductive strategy, wheras fish that lay thousands of eggs can safely eat fry, regardless of the fact that there is a chance they might be their own. The resource cost of somehow ‘checking and avoiding’ is greater than the small loss incurred.

    What is so important about holding our groups together if in nature other groups (animals) are perfectly naturally healthy and thriving without any type of group pressure (to not harm their babies), and meanwhile survive as a species quite nicely?
    ===
    There will be much variation in the group pressure to not harm babies across species. Many social species protect their young, including against their own. In many mammalian social species where infanticide occurs (primates, lions etc.) the killing is usually done by invading males who take over the group, killing or driving off the previous males, and killing the young. Thus the animals are not killing their own young, but those of rivals (so that they invest in protecting their young, not someone else’s). Infanticide by invading males has unfortunately been known to happen in human wars as well…. But i digress, the point is that humans are not the only animals to protect their young, including from those of their own species.
    Why is it important for us (and other social species) to hold our groups together? Because this is our survival strategy. We are reciprocally dependent on one another. The same is true for many socially cooperative species. Others have different strategies, and different behaviours.

    Isn’t that the only supposed good of the neo-darwinian blind-watchmaker thesis – the survival of the species?
    ===
    This is the fallacy that the theory of evolution by natrual selection is somehow a moral code. This mistake is made by many opponents of evolution and also by the so called “social Darwinists”. Evolution may help us understand where morality came from, but it itself is not a moral code. It says nothing about ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It is simply the idea that the differential survival probabilities across genetic variation in a population can lead to the population evolving over generations in various directions. One of the things which has evolved (in the proto-human to human population) is the sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ that we have. This sense guides our social behaviour, and enables us to live the way we do. Our imperative to follow this sense is, unfortuantely, imperfect, as the optimal strategy within this social framework we have evolved appears to be to be good most of the time, but to occasionaly act selfishly when we can get away with it. You would say, I imagine, that we are all sinners. I would say that, wheras we all have a common understaing of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, we do not always act in accordance to it. This is not a conscious strategy, but human nature, as produced by our evolutionary history.

    All the best

    David

  • David Coultous

    P.S. 15 is a failed attempt at 16. I’m not familiar with the markup language 🙂

  • Matt

    Jasonseneca, you use “objective evil” and then continue to say that the definition is dependent upon how we define that term. This is not objective reasoning, it has no value in a reality with absolutes (this world). This then means that you believe that evil is relative, which would fit your belief that evil is an adjective as opposed to a noun.

    You say that you do not “need a theoretical concept of perfect goodness to describe something as good”. Hotness (physical attraction) is reletive, there is no absolute law about what makes a person hot. Therefore, you cannot describe “perfect hotness”. Many wemon that are called “hot” by my friends I find unattractive because their inner person takes away from their outer beauty (to me). The problem with your comparisons here are that “goodness”, “hotness”, and “hunger” are not in all things. Even animals have hotness (it is relative) and hunger. But they do not have goodness as an idea or concept. Where did we get that from? “There must be something different about goodness… but what is it?” we must ask ourselves. Hunger does not have to mean physical hunger, I believe here you mean it as physical, so I will treat it as such. Physicall hunger is a necessity to live, it is our body telling us that we will die if we do not eat food. It is a chemical process. It is not of the mind. What we feel is our bodies hurting, pain (an emotional response to a physical need, not the other way around). Hunger of our heart (soul, conciousness, etc.) is absolute. For our hunger will be satisfied in only one way, and that is in Christ. Furthermore, in this response you assert that there is an absolute good, for you say “perfect goodness”. That does require a giver of law, by the way. If there are absolutes, then there is a giver of them.

    Once again here you assert absolute moral standards. It is almost as though you believe in an absolute moral truth (except in the beginning your subjectivity to objectivness confuses me), so I will respond as though you do. If there are absolutes, they must be backed up or enforced or be given whitness that they are infact absolutes. This support cannot come from matter, for matter has no ability to give reason, in itself, why it exists. This must be supernatural.

    I say these things not to try to “win” the argument, but because I honestly care about what you believe. I believe in love. Perfect love, the one and only source of love being God. I cannot tell you how sad I am when I see these arguments that themselves cannot stand because they are divided against themselves. For the root of contradiction, with respect to the absolute truth, is caused by taking part of the absolute and only truth and denying the other. I wish that I could make you see, but if I did it would not be me, it would be the knowledge of God and reality that he has blessed me with. If you could not do what you are doing right now, you would have no free will. Just think about everything there is and then find the things that explain the entire universe’s existance. This leads only to a god, I believe in the God of the Jews and Christians. I belive that Christianity is the only doctrine that is non-contradictory, and therefore the only belief that is consistant through and though, and therefore the absolute truth.

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  • Andrew Ryan

    “The Christian answer is that this standard originates in the nature of God. God’s own nature is the perfect standard of good”

    This begs the question. Why is His nature the standard? How do you get from the ‘is’ of His supposed nature to the ‘oughts’ of how people should behave?

    Is something good because it’s part of His nature, or is it part of His nature because it is good?

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  • This is the first time I’ve seen someone else say exactly what I believe; it’s the only logical rationale. Thank you and God bless you, Mr. Pratt.

  • jscottu

    Yes…before I read this I had pondered this same idea for a long time. I asked “was Hitler evil…or was he ‘differently directed’ ?

  • Can good exist with out evil being created?

  • Yes. It can and it did. God is perfectly good and has always existed. Evil came into being when free and finite creatures chose to reject God after He created them.

  • Joedarch

    I’m a bit late but let me chime in anyway… I’m surprised that no one has made a direct link to Alvin Plantinga’s brilliant free will defense…(By the way: the brilliance of Plantinga’s defense is that it is a strictly philosophical, logical defense and not a theodicy!)

  • UncleSham

    There is an absolute standard for temperature. It is called the Kelvin scale, and the standard is absolute zero. Heat is a measurement of the speed of the motion of subatomic particles. The absence of motion would be the absolute standard by which we can compare everything else.