Saturday, 23 May 2009

The Necessity of Evil?

The faithful like to think they have the moral upper hand on non-believers. This is usually because they believe there is an objective morality, somehow personified (is that the right word?) in their version of god. It's not clear to me how a god being the embodiment (again, is that the right word?) of 'good' establishes an objective morality, but let's see if we can run with it. 

I've seen theists say to deniers of objective morality, that to torture a child for fun is always wrong, so let us examine this knotty problem. (The 'for fun' is a little problematic, because it could defy accurate definition.)

Moral 'laws' are not constraining laws, in the way that physical laws are, they're normative - they can be overridden, but, we feel, they *should* be observed. This seems to make them a little worthless to me, but nevertheless, let's continue. For a morality to be objective, it would be recognised by everything under all circumstances; in other words, it wouldn't be *contingent*. Regardless of the viewpoint, one could identify the normative behaviour. This universality, I think, should apply to everything; you, me, trees, rocks. One could say that rocks, being inanimate objects never have the chance to operate with moral considerations. But one could imagine that a rock, having rolled down a hill and pinned an innocent child to the ground and caused much pain might be being immoral. It cannot do anything about it, agreed, but nonetheless, it *is* torturing a child. Perhaps the apologist would deny that this is 'for fun'? Perhaps, but it's certainly to no purpose, and if that's not 'for fun', I'm not sure what is.

OK, so the apologist says, don't be silly, these 'laws' cannot apply to things lacking agency, or the ability to do anything about it. Right, so they're not universal, they're just universal for, er, homo sapiens? And other animals, too, perhaps, but we'll figure that out later. Let's accept that, and carry on. Mackie says in his 'Ethics' that 'the device of morality is beneficial because of certain contingent features of the human condition'. On this I think he concurs with many ethicists. This has always seemed to me an obvious point about morality, and renders a universal objective morality unobtainable. History would seem to bear this out, but let's not be too empiricist about this, and explore further. 

To torture a child for fun is *always* wrong? Or can we think of a circumstance where this could be OK? I think we can. Imagine we are observing two rooms set up by some James Bond villain. In one, there are ten children, in the other 50. If no child in the first room tortures another child 'for fun' within the day, then the 50 children in the other room will be tortured. If I know kids, there will be some fun-filled victimisation going on sooner or later, so I guess the 50 kids are safe. More to the point, as observers, we must *hope* for the torture of a child for fun, to achieve the preferred outcome. Hang on, what's that? We want a child to be tortured for fun? Surely that's objectively wrong? Well, no, it's *contingent*, like all other morality.

Let's be charitable, and allow the apologist to say, hey, unrealistic thought experiments aside, it's *wrong* to torture kids for fun! You just *know* it's wrong. Well, I guess, we do, practically *all* the time. It's clearly *not* universal, but let's allow some leeway, and say that it *is* objectively wrong. Nevertheless, kids are tortured for fun everyday in this world, so it *does* happen. In fact, in the theists' world-view, their god is *allowing* it. Why would he do that, him being the embodiment (?) of good, and all that? The closest to an explanation of this conundrum is, to sum up centuries of theodicy, 'for the greater good'. So evils are allowed to occur to achieve greater 'goods'. But that means... that 'torturing children for fun' is for the greater good. Which means it's not objectively wrong, surely? Well, your guess is as good as mine, but I suppose we've stumbled upon the Euthyphro dilemma.

With such confused moral thinking, is it any wonder that abuses occur as we've seen reported in Ireland. If a doctrine acknowledges that evil is *required* for the greater good, why wouldn't the believers of that doctrine think that these evils are *inevitable*. I think only *humanitarian* instincts, which thankfully come to the fore in the vast majority of theists, prevent it. It's *human* values that conteract these bankrupt *theist* values.

One would hope that these abuses are confined to Ireland and the recent past, but one fears the worst; is it the logical outcome of a doctrine that preaches the *necessity* of evil?


  • Barba Rija says:
    19 June 2009 at 05:02

    Very good text. Thank you.

  • Mark Jones says:
    20 June 2009 at 12:19

    Thanks Barba!

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