The problem of evil is the logical inconsistency that occurs when one posits both the existence of God, and the existence of evil. When speaking of evil, I of course do not mean evil in the sense of wickedness or sin, but simply terrible things, like pain and suffering. And God, or, at least the God I will be discussing here, is defined as an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being. It may be necessary to explain what I mean when I use these “divine traits” of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence, so I will define them as follows: omnipotence is being completely powerful, within the bounds of logic; omniscience, while often supposed to be stronger than the definition I am going to use, is, for the purposes of this paper, simply knowing all true propositions; and omnibenevolence is being truly, perfectly, and completely good. We will also assume, as seems incredibly likely, that good will eliminate evil as far as it is able, unless, in eliminating some evil, it must also eliminate something of comparable goodness, or bring about some greater evil. The problem, now, with evil, is that God, as we see him, and as philosophers have described him (as an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being), has the ability and inclination to prevent any and all evil from occurring, but, as we can plainly see, there is evil in this world, so either he is, for some reason, unable to prevent evil (e.g., because it is logically impossible to prevent certain kinds of evil), or he has some good reason for not doing so (e.g., because preventing one instance of evil might bring about an even worse evil). There are several responses theists have posited in order to reconcile this problem of God’s existence alongside evil, but the one I wish to address is what I shall call the “virtue response.” In his essay, “Evil and Omnipotence,” J.L. Mackie quickly describes the virtue response to the problem of evil in the following excerpt: “… [T]heists often seize the opportunity to accuse those who stress the problem of evil of taking a low, materialistic view of good and evil, equating these with pleasure and pain, and of ignoring the more spiritual goods which can arise in the struggle against evils” (309). In speaking of “spiritual goods,” Mackie is, as he makes clear later on in the essay, talking about moral virtues. As the virtue response says, it is to allow for the existence of moral virtues that God allows evil to occur, because evil is somehow necessary for virtue to exist, and a world with much evil and some virtue is better than a world with no evil and no virtue. But is this argument really sound?
First, it may be necessary to set down a definition of virtue with which I will work. The Aristotelian definition of virtue can be taken from the following passage in his Nicomachean Ethics:
“We may remark, then, that every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well … Therefore, if this is true in every case, the virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well.” (II.6)A virtue, therefore, is a character trait that makes a person good and inclines a person towards doing good things. Virtue ethics is a dicey area of philosophy, because nobody can ever know for sure what the virtues might be, but some examples of what Aristotle might mean when he talks about virtues are courage or generosity. The virtues referenced in the virtue response would also necessarily be ones that have something to do with evil, most likely the prevention thereof, but not necessarily. One might present dignity as a virtue, which might be described as keeping one’s demeanor in the face of great evil, which does not involve the prevention of evil, but still requires evil. This type of virtue, however, does not seem at all to be what is involved in the virtue response, as it seems absurd to say that we need evil so that people can not change the way they act. One might also present the virtue of temperance, the occasional denial of indulgences, and moderate acceptance of same. It seems strange to say that God allowed for the existence of intoxicating substances so that we might decide not to use them; why tempt us? After all, temptation is generally considered a bad thing. One can continue proposing virtues that do not involve the prevention of evil for a long period of time, but none of them really seem to be worth the existence of the evil that allows for them to be brought about. Of all the proposed virtues, the ones which seem the most important (or most virtuous), and which seem, at first, to give the virtue response the most weight, are those that prevent some sort of evil. Generosity, for instance, might be defined as the prevention of destitution by giving one’s economic resources away. The virtue responder would say that it is good that God allows evil to exist, so that the generous person may be allowed to be generous. Courage, as well, might be a good example of the type of virtue that is meant in this response, when we define it as risking one’s life to save others. The virtue responder would posit that it is good that God allows evil to exist, so that the courageous may be allowed to act courageously. It is virtues like this, and others that involve the prevention of evil, that I will take to be what the theist is referring to when he presents the virtue response.
At the current point, a virtue, as defined by the virtue response, is a character trait which inclines a person towards doing good things, specifically, preventing evil. But this is clearly not enough, because if God allows evil simply so that it would be prevented, it would obviously be better if he simply prevented it himself. This is where the last part of the definition comes in. A virtue is something that makes a person good. What the theist employing the virtue response seems then to be saying, is that evil is required for the existence of virtuous people. This may not seem immediately apparent, as even Aristotle has said that “possession of virtue seems actually compatible with being asleep, or with lifelong inactivity” (I.5). So it is possible that a person may be virtuous while never even committing a virtuous act. It is not necessary, then, that evil exist in order for there to be virtuous people, but for there to be virtuous acts committed. This is, presumably, what the virtue response is actually saying, that God allows evil to exist in order to allow for the committing of virtuous acts.
So, as stated previously, it is not simply that they prevent evil that makes virtuous acts worthwhile; if the prevention of evil was all that mattered, God would presumably prevent all evil on his own to begin with. To the theist employing the virtue response, there must then be something intrinsically good about committing virtuous acts. It’s difficult to see what this might be. It seems to me that the only reason we see a virtuous act as being good is because it prevents evil. Take away the problem of poverty, for existence, and it no longer seems incredibly necessary for there to be generous people. It is simply that we are currently in need of those willing to give freely to the poor that we see them as good. If we existed in a world without evil, we would all see no need for virtuous acts to be performed. It seems difficult, however, to come up with an argument that will convince the person that finds there to be something intrinsically good about performing virtuous actions. Though I don’t agree that there is such an intrinsic goodness to performing virtuous acts, for the sake of argument, I am willing to grant that it may be the case. Even after allowing such a proposition, the virtue response still seems unsatisfactory.
First, there are still several imaginable instances of evil in which there isn’t even the opportunity to be virtuous in response. For example, lighting strikes can happen almost instantaneously and with very little warning, so there is sometimes no possible way to be virtuous with respect to being struck by lightning. If the virtue response was all that was needed to explain the problem of evil, would not God prevent the few deaths that occur each year by lightning strikes? Still, they occur, and so the virtue response does not hold as a perfect answer to the problem of evil.
My second objection to the virtue response, the one that I find to be perhaps more striking due to what it seems to imply for ethics, I will now put forth. I take the definition of God as an omnibenevolent being to mean that God is supremely virtuous, and without vice (the opposite of virtue); I don’t believe that I will find much argument from theists against this claim. To put it more clearly, a supremely virtuous being will always act virtuously, whenever possible. The question I now ask is, “is it virtuous to create evil?” It seems obvious that it is not. If one entertains the possibility that it is virtuous to create evil in order to allow for other virtuous acts to be performed, one can imagine a world in which it is impossible not to be virtuous, because any action that has any effect will create either prevent an evil, or allow one, committing a virtuous act, or creating possibilities for others to commit virtuous acts. It seems obvious that a human being’s act of creating evil, even using the excuse of this evil allowing for virtuous acts to be committed, could not possibly be seen as virtuous. But, according to the virtue response, God is apparently doing this all the time.
One may, in response, say that God does not cause evil, but merely allows it to happen, and the evil occurs through no fault of God’s own. The result of this response is no better. Imagine that allowing evil to occur is virtuous, because it allows others to act virtuously. Now imagine a scenario in which a man is the leader of a country. His country is about to go to war with another, unless he decides not to. The previous leader had ordered the invasion just before being replaced. The current leader can easily cancel the invasion by giving new orders to the military just before they commence the attack. If the invasion occurs, it will not have been started as the result of any of his actions, since he did not order the assault. He’ll lose nothing from preventing the war; it requires very little effort on his part, and he will be in the exact same situation either way. Despite the ease of preventing the war from occurring, he decides to allow it to go on, in order to allow those involved the chance to act virtuously. Is he acting virtuously? I think it’s clear that he is not.
But this is the same case God is in; God is not causing the evil, just as the leader of the nation in the story mentioned previously is not causing the war. But God has the power to stop the war from occurring at any time; he simply refrains from doing so, according to the virtue response, in order to allow for virtuous acts to be performed. It seems clear in the war story that it is not a virtuous act to allow evil to occur. Are we then, when God allows even greater evils than simply one war to occur, still expected to continue to see him as supremely virtuous? This seems absurd. It seems even more so, when one thinks about this situation even further. If it truly is a virtue to fail to prevent evil, in order to allow for virtuous acts to be performed, then imagine a world where everyone acts virtuously, in this respect. It would be a terror. Children would be drowning all over the place, while people easily able to save them simply looked on and allowed them to die; minorities would be constantly oppressed, with no one taking the right actions to help them out of their dire situations. Failing to prevent evil, even when doing so to allow for others to commit virtuous acts, is not only not virtuous, it seems outright vicious.
A theist response to this claim of God’s viciousness might be that different moral rules apply to God. Something to the effect of “it’s different morally for God to fail to prevent evil than it is for a human.” Why should this be so? Proponents of this response seem to be giving God a less restricted set of moral rules to follow, in saying it is morally permissible for him to fail to prevent evil. Doesn’t it make more sense that God would (or, at least, should), have a stricter set of moral guidelines? He is, after all, in the position of the most powerful being in the universe; some restraint would be much appreciated.
A theist still might not be convinced that God is acting viciously in failing to prevent evil; there is very little I can think of to convince someone who is not inclined to agree that failing to prevent evil is a vicious act. But it still seems to work for my argument. The theist that does not agree that God is acting viciously might say that God is simply not acting virtuously. But this is still a failure, for the theist, because it is an admission of an imperfection. God is not acting virtuously, when there is a virtuous choice: the prevention of evil. But God, as a completely virtuous being, must always act virtuously, whenever a virtuous action is possible.
Third, it is also important to take into account the fact that this evil, which has been supposed to have been brought about for the allowance of virtuous deeds, also allows for many vicious deeds to be committed. It is not difficult to think of ways in which a bad situation, an evil, can be made worse through no (immediate) fault of God. For example, two countries are at war. This is an obviously evil situation. But, seeing the two countries at war, in a distracted and weakened state, a third nation takes advantage of the opportunity, and invades and conquers both, causing much death and suffering, more than would have occurred without this third countries invasion, and much more than would have occurred had the first war never occurred to begin with. So, the existence of evil which God allows may be made worse by the fact that it allows for great vicious acts to be committed, which, one may argue, occurs more often, or at least to greater magnitude than virtuous acts.
These aforementioned reasons make it the virtue response seem incredibly unsatisfactory. As it has been presented, the argument fails to explain many instances of evil which present no opportunity for the heroics of virtue to arise, due, for example, to the quickness and finality of the evil. Additionally, virtue response seems to imply a system of ethics, which, if applied uniformly, would obviously be absurdly amoral, with God leading the way in such clearly morally impermissible actions as the creation of widespread suffering and pain, or at least the failure to prevent it. Finally, the virtue response says nothing to address the widespread acts of vice which capitalize on the existence of evil, as allowed by God. The virtue response seems impotent, and, though I do not believe this to be a knockout punch against God in the problem of evil, as I think the theist does have some other, better responses, I do believe that the dismantling of the virtue response leaves theists in a much trickier position.
Aristotle. ">Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. W. D. Ross. The Internet Classics Archive. 4 Dec. 2007
Mackie, J. L. "Evil and Omnipotence." Philosophy of Religion. Ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. 304-314.