I sometimes write about the relationship of the problem of evil to evolution. Darwinian natural selection is a rather unpleasant business, you see, making you wonder why a loving God would employ it as his method of creation. My experience with anti-evolutionists has been that this is a point of special concern for them. Virtually every book proposing to reconcile evolution with Christianity devotes a chapter to this (or at least a major section), and some theologians write whole books about it. I devote a chapter to it in Among the Creationists.
You hardly need Darwin to point out that evil and suffering is a problem for theism, but evolution does contribute something to the discussion. Many of the standard replies that are offered in response to the problem plainly do not apply to evolution. For example, it is sometimes claimed that the evil people do to one another is the price we pay for the greater good of possessing free will. Others argue that suffering is necessary for “soul making,” which is to say that suffering is not truly bad as it makes it possible to work toward spiritual perfection. The suffering in nature, it is sometimes argued, is necessary as the price for a functional ecosystem. Regardless of whether or not these arguments are successful, it is clear that none of them address why God would employ Darwinian natural selection as his mechanism of creation.
Of course, there is certainly no shortage of evolutionary theodicies on offer. The point is simply that a specifically evolutionary theodicy is necessary.
In making this argument, however, I do not mean to suggest that I think the traditional replies to the problem of evil are adequate. In the current issue of Philosophy Now, Jimmy Alfonso Licon, a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Maryland, argues that the free will defense is simply inadequate as a response to the problem. The article is not freely available online, so you will have to make do with a few excerpts.
The article begins with a lucid statement of the problem. I like the way he puts it:
Imagine someone who claims to love their children, but they constantly neglect them–they are never home, and their children are often hungry and unprotected. We would rightly be sceptical that they cared for their children at all. It looks like they don’t actually care. So too with God: it seems that with all the suffering in the world, there couldn’t be any such benevolent, omnipotent God.
Licon now explores three problems with the free will defense, all of them persuasive in my view. Here’s the first:
The first problem is that a good action (e.g. feeding thousands of hungry people) is morally permissible, while an evil action (e.g. killing thousands of people) is not. However, the reason feeding thousands of hungry people is morally preferable to killing them has little to do with our capacity to have chosen differently. Rather, it is because people have intrinsic moral worth.
Although this should be remarkably obvious, it cuts deeply against the free will defense. To appreciate why, consider the following: although choosing to do good while you have the capacity to do evil may be a kind of good itself, there are plenty of instances where this good is not good enough to justify the kinds of evil that are potentially unleashed by it. So although there may be moral value to some degree in our capacity to do tremendous evil, in that it provides us the opportunity to freely choose to do the right thing, this good is not absolute. Consider an example from history. Could allowing Hitler the ability to choose the good outweigh the suffering he actually inflicted, on Jewish people and others?
In the interest of keeping this post to a reasonable length, I’ll skip over the second problem, which is that when someone exercises their freedom to do evil, they are robbing others of their own freedom. The third reason is this:
The worry is that in any other context, we reject anything that resembles the free-will defense.
Suppose that the police know that Jones is about to rob a bank and kill a number of civilians in the process (perhaps they know his getaway plan involves killing innocent bystanders as a way of creating a distraction). Suppose further that the police have enough evidence to justify arresting and convicting Jones for some previous crime before he gets the chance to rob the bank. The choices are as follows: the police could either allow Jones to go through with the bank robbery, respecting Jones’ freedom to engage in violent activity (call this option Freedom); or they could preemptively arrest him, preventing unnecessary violence–but unfortunately, this would only come at the expense of his freedom to engage in terrible violence (call this Safety) It should be clear that the Freedom option is what we would prescribe on the advice of the free-will defense, and that this is precisely the option that God allegedly chooses: He fails to intervene, even where there is a horrific amount of suffering, because this would undermine our free will.
…Clearly, between these two solutions, Safety is morally far better than Freedom. The value of human life is far greater than our ability to freely act in morally repugnant ways, or to refrain from acting in those ways.
Skipping ahead to Licon’s conclusion:
In conclusion, although it is good to have the freedom to choose between right and wrong, the free-will defense gets the moral weights wrong. It places too much weight on freedom, and not enough weight on the lives and well-being of innocents.
This is all well-said and convincing. I would further note that the moral callousness of the free-will defense becomes even more clear when you factor in further aspects of certain popular forms of Christian theology. Not only did those Jews who were murdered in the holocaust have their freedom in this life taken from them, but, unless they found Jesus prior to their deaths, they are now spending eternity in Hell. All so that Hitler would not have his free-will curtailed.
What would have been the harm if God, having noted that Hitler was determined to go through with his plan to kill the Jews, had caused him to fall down the stairs? Whose freedom would have been threatened by that? God, we are told, intervenes in human affairs all the time. He causes miracles and answers prayers. Some argue that God works His will in the world by hiding behind quantum indeterminacy. The ID folks tell us that God personally designed all manner of biochemical systems. You cannot hold to such beliefs and then balk at the notion of Him intervening in human affairs to forestall appalling evil.
And if you are horrified by the thought that He would behave like a hit man, I would simply note it is morally acceptable to kill in the defense of others, which is what God would have been doing in this case. Moreover, since He routinely condemns people to eternal damnation, it hardly seems apropos to get squeamish now. (Spare me the retort that God does not condemn anyone, but people freely choose an eternity in Hell by rejecting Jesus in this life.)
The free will defense is probably the strongest counter to the problem of evil that has been devised. That it fails so completely tells you something about the magnitude of the problem.