The PROBLEM OF GOOD

You’re familiar with the Problem of Evil. It is an argument often advanced against the existence of God. It runs something like this:

“By definition, God is benevolent, omniscient and omnipotent. If so, any world that includes God should be perfect. After all, God knows all, can do all and by nature is perfectly good. Yet when we take a close look at our world, it is certainly not perfect; it’s not even clear on balance that it is more good than bad. Wars, famines and natural disasters fill our TV screen every evening. Humans are guilty of unspeakable acts of cruelty; even animals survive only at the expense of weaker species. Everyone ages, most eventually get sick and become infirm, and all die, often horribly. In such a world, surely there can be no God.”

Theologians have confronted this reasoning for centuries but they have not always done a very convincing job of answering it. In the Book of Job, for instance, evil results from a ‘dare’ (between Satan and God). Philosophers have done little better. According to G. W. Leibniz, for example, the world we live in actually is the best of all possible worlds. Finally, Rabbi Harold Kushner and others reject the basic premise of the argument; for Kushner, God is benevolent…but not omnipotent.

The purpose of this essay is not to rehash or resolve the Problem of Evil per se but rather to propose a different but related conundrum: the Problem of Good. We will see that this new problem is even more intractable than its nastier cousin; but we will also see that solving the one may help us resolve the other after all.

Good and evil! We speak of them as though they formed a perfectly symmetrical pair, like up and down or right and left. But they do not! They actually have no more in common than donuts have with their holes (and I’m not talking about munchkins). Good is the quality by which we recognize and measure all that is of ‘value’ in our world; whereas Evil, as Saint Augustine pointed out, is merely the absence of Good. How so?

Beauty is not merely the absence of ugliness; but ugliness is certainly the absence of beauty. Truth is not merely the absence of falsehood but falsehood is certainly the absence of truth. Justice is not merely the absence of injustice; but injustice is certainly the absence of justice.

So what do we mean when we call an event ‘evil’?

  • We might mean that the event is completely or perfectly evil or that the event is Evil per se; or
  • We might mean that the event is on balance more bad than good; or
  • We might just mean that the event is ‘less good’ than other possible alternatives.

A completely or perfectly evil event is not possible (see above); nor can Evil per se ever constitute an event. Evil is not a thing-in-itself but the ‘lack’ of something. While a ‘lack’ may play an important role in the development of an event, such a lack cannot constitute the event itself; you cannot make something out of nothing.

Yet every day we experience events that seem more evil than good…or at least less good than possible alternatives we can imagine. Is ‘evil’ something that objectively characterizes such events or are we merely describing our subjective reactions?

When a child says that spinach is yucky, we do not conclude that it is objectively evil; but when a philosopher tells us that slavery or torture is immoral, we assume she is talking about something more than just her personal tastes.

In fact, the Problem of Evil is not a problem at all unless ‘evil’ objectively characterizes certain events. If ‘evil’ is simply a matter of our subjective reaction to events, then it has nothing whatsoever to do with the benevolence or power of God. Slavery is probative, spinach is not! The implicit assumption that underlies the Problem of Evil is that evil is an objective characteristic of certain events, that we can know evil when we see it and that we can identify and label events as ‘evil’ with an acceptable degree of accuracy.

In fact, most proposed solutions to the Problem of Evil are based on a denial of this premise:

  • “You can’t say that an event is ‘evil’; it may be better that any possible alternative.”
  • “While an event may appear to be evil, it may be part of a larger complex of events (a ‘divine plan’, for example) that will ultimately lead to the greatest possible good.”

But non-believers are unimpressed by these arguments:

  • “I can easily identify evil events for which better alternatives obviously exist: the Holocaust, for example. If I cannot label events like the Holocaust as ‘evil’ then I must succumb to radical moral skepticism, the null point of all philosophy.”
  • “If we have to allow objectively evil events in order to get to ‘the greatest possible good’, then it isn’t the greatest possible good after all; the greatest possible good would be a good we could get to without tolerating suffering (evil) along the way.”

So Evil objectively characterizes certain events and we can recognize it when we see it; but how? How do we recognize a lack? By comparing it to its opposite, real or imagined. And what is the opposite of Evil? Good. So if Evil objectively characterizes certain events, so must Good. We must be able to recognize Good when we see it as well. And how is that possible?

Good and Evil are not things we see directly when we experience events. What we see are manifestations of Good and Evil: Beauty or Ugliness, Truth or Falsity, Justice or Corruption, etc. Nor do we even see these qualities (or lacks) directly; we perceive them in the pattern formed by the concrete qualities that the event embodies.

A painting, for example, is ‘good’ if it is ‘beautiful’ and it is beautiful if its lines, shapes and colors form patterns that possess a certain aesthetic quality. A proposition is ‘good’ if it is ‘true’ and it is true if it is consistent with other true propositions and if it accounts for the details of experience. A law is ‘good’ if it is ‘just’ and it is just if it treats citizens both with compassion and according to their merits.

Note: I realize that I am greatly oversimplifying these very complex categories but I am merely trying to sketch the relationship between ‘absolutes’ (Good and Evil), their ‘manifestations’ (Beauty, Truth, Justice, etc.), and the concrete details (red, green, straight, wavy, etc.) that characterize everyday experience.

Two paintings side-by-side on a museum wall may well include the same hues and shapes but one may be beautiful and the other ugly. Beauty is a function of the pattern of hues and shapes, not the hues and shapes themselves. We may refer to hues and shapes as Primary Values and Beauty as a Secondary Value.

Two propositions may include the exact same words but one proposition may be true and the other false; it depends on the pattern formed by those words. Words themselves are neither true nor false; propositions, the patterns made from words, are.

Two laws may include the same elements but one may be just and the other unjust; it depends on how those elements work together and how they are applied. It also depends on context: a law may be just in some circumstances and unjust in others. Again, it is all about the pattern.

So in determining whether a painting is good, we need to apply certain aesthetic criteria; in determining whether a proposition is good, we need to apply certain logical and experimental criteria; in determining whether a law is good, we need to apply certain criteria derived from ethics and the social sciences. Collectively, we call these criteria ‘values’.

Beauty, truth, justice, even good itself, may seem rather static categories. Fortunately, they have a more processional synonym: Love. Love (caritas, agape, often even eros) is “good-in-act”. Values characterize not only static patterns in art, science or law but, as much or more so, they characterize active patterns in the behavior of things (human, animate or otherwise). Kindness, encouragement, assistance, forgiveness and sacrifice are some of the specific manifestations of Love. Merely ‘granting reck’ (Anaximander), letting another simply be, is a manifestation of Love. Indeed, according to Anaximander, it is the primal expression of Love and the source of creation itself.

Values characterize mental processes as well. (Note: I use ‘mental process’ here in the broadest possible sense. It is in no way my intention to confine its application to humans. Indeed, we do not know for sure how wide a range of cosmic phenomena include at least some level of mental process.) Awareness, for example, is a quality that applies to certain mental processes and therefore awareness is a value; likewise consciousness.

But where do these values come from and where do they reside? Not among the concrete elements that make up the painting, proposition, law…or action. Values are not elements among other elements. The values by which we judge art, science, law, behavior, thought must transcend art, science, law, behavior and thought. Otherwise they would have no normative power; and they could vary from event to event. If the yardstick by which we measure entities is different for every entity, then it is not a yardstick at all and our measurements measure nothing. To be real, universal values must transcend their concrete applications.

It is important to be clear here: I am not saying that we need to be able to apply these transcendent values (objective criteria) infallibly; nor do we have to be unanimous in our application of values to specific events. We only need agree that objective criteria (values) do in fact exist and can in fact be applied, however much we may struggle to apply them correctly.

Although values transcend the entities they qualify, they are not foreign to these entities. Everything we do in life is based on value judgments: which course of action is ‘better’? Which choice is more beautiful, more true, more just, more loving, more ethical, more fully conscious?

Even inanimate natural events usually occur in response to objective imbalances. Water seeks its own level and lightening follows the path of least resistance. Our world is innately homeostatic at all levels. If it were not, there would be no world. It is a fine tuned system geared primarily to maintaining its dynamic balance. Otherwise, imbalances would cascade and the world would quite simply break apart.

Values play three roles with respect to events. They provide the initial impetus that sets an event in motion, they function as elements in the environment of an evolving event that may influence its development, and they constitute the objective criteria by which every event must ultimately be measured.

Since events originate out of values, it is only fitting that they be judged according to how well they realize those values. Every event is subject to evaluation according to our ‘objective criteria’ precisely because every event shapes itself in response to those criteria. If I set out to walk 10 miles, it is only fair to ask me, “How far d’ya get?”

Therefore, values are both wholly immanent (as goal and influence) and entirely transcendent (as measure). How is that possible?

On the surface, it isn’t! According to the ‘standard secular model’, the universe is a self-contained, self-explained phenomenon, a flat, ontologically democratic world where entities (events) are just facts…and nothing more. Events can refer to one another (e.g. causality) but they cannot refer to anything transcendent, anything beyond their collective selves, because the model stipulates that there is nothing beyond their collective selves.

According to this model, there are no objective, qualitative differences among paintings, theories, laws…or actions. Human beings do whatever they do for whatever reasons they do and who are we to judge? Sound familiar? But if we believe that values are objectively real, we can’t settle for this secular model.

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously wrote, “No statement of facts can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value…all the facts described would, as it were, stand on the same level.” In Twilight of the Gods, Nietzsche wrote, “…There exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being, for that would be to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole…But nothing exists apart from the whole!” Finally, in The Meaning of Life, A.J. Ayer wrote, “…Moral terms, while as it were, commenting on natural features of the world, do not themselves describe them.”

So where must we go to locate our values?

The Problem of Evil asks how an imperfect world can be reconciled with the existence of a perfect God. Instead, I propose the Problem of Good: in an ontologically flat universe, how can there be any experience of Good?

Evil is relatively easy to explain. While values may permeate our world, as an event develops it may marginalize, ignore or even repudiate those values. But if you deny the existence of objective values in the first place, then how in the world do you explain (or even define) the experiences of ‘good’ that all of us have?

Potentially at least, all events consist of three elements: the material elements that underlie them, the historical influences that condition them and the values that motivate them, guide them and characterize them. To the extent that events consist of material and historical elements, they are temporal; to the extent that events consist of values, they are eternal. Value (Good) is the eternal aspect of everything that exists.

We are often reminded that “change is the only constant” in our world. That is true as applied to the material and historical elements of that world; it is not true of values. Values by definition are not subject to change; they are eternal. That said, of course, the concrete application of values in the context of temporal events can be variable; but the values themselves, divorced from their applications, never change.

So how can values enter into our temporal world but still stand apart from that world? There is only one possible solution to this paradox: there must be at least one event that consists solely of values without any material or historical contribution. With no material or historical elements, there can be no opening for the processes of time (change). Therefore, such an event is a-temporal (eternal) and transcendent.  But it is still an event among other events, and so it is also immanent.

Immanent, it enters into the constitution of other events in the same way that all events enter into each other’s constitutions; transcendent, it is the event by which all other events are measured and evaluated.

By definition, this event must be unique. An event that embodies all values must also manifest and conform to those values. It must consist of all the primary values and the potential for those primary values to form patterns that are beautiful, truthful, just, ethical, loving, aware, etc… There can only be one event that satisfies this condition. If there appeared to be more than one such event, each such event would be exactly the same as any other such event and therefore they would simply be one event, perhaps with multiple manifestations.

If this sounds strange and esoteric, it isn’t! In fact, it is totally ordinary and mundane. We already have a perfectly common word that we use to name such an event. We call it, “God”. This is what Jean-Paul Sartre meant when he said that God is the being for whom Essence (qualities) precedes (logically) Existence. It is also what Thomas Aquinas meant when he wrote, “…There is something which is truest, something best, something noblest…and this we call God.”

So our world is composed of events. One (and only one) of these events is eternal and consists solely of values. All other events, by definition, include material and historical elements and so are temporal. The one eternal event stimulates and influences all of the temporal events but no temporal event has any influence whatsoever on the one eternal event.

Some readers who have followed us so far, may part company here. They are not comfortable with the idea of God as an actual entity, a real being. For them, as John Lennon said, “God is a concept…” However, the logic of our argument is really inescapable. Love it or not, there is simply no other way to account for the world as we know it (assuming you accept the premises underlying the argument known as the “Problem of Evil” above).

So what have we demonstrated? We have shown that…

  • The Problem of Evil is based on the assumption that objective values exist and can be applied, albeit imperfectly, to evaluate concrete events. Otherwise, ‘evil’ is simply a matter of taste and not relevant to any discussion about ontology.
  • We recognize Evil in the absence of certain qualities which we call ‘good’. These qualities are the objective values that, by their presence or absence, allow us to recognize Good and Evil in our world.
  • Those objective values enter into the origination of events, influence those events as they evolve, and measure them when they are completed matters of fact.
  • It is solely because of these objective values that there is Good in our world and that we are able to recognize it when we see it. In fact, it is solely because of these operative values that we have a world at all.
  • These objective values must be both immanent (influence) and transcendent (measure). For values to be immanent they must be embodied in an actual event; but for values to be transcendent, that event must be a-temporal, eternal. (An eternal event influences every other event but is influenced by no other event: “God is good, his kindness endures forever”. Psalm 100)
  • There can be but one such eternal event; all other events must be temporal.
  • Theoretically at least, we know of an entity that consists entirely of values, that influences every event but is influenced by no event. We call this entity, “God”.
  • And now, if we accept the premises underlying the “Problem of Evil”, we know that this entity must in fact exist.

So have we proven the existence of God, the holy grail of philosophy for millennia? Not quite. What we have done is to define a very narrow set of conditions one must accept in order logically to deny or even question God’s existence, to wit:

  • Either Good and Evil do not exist; or
  • Good and Evil do exist but they do no not objectively characterize events; or
  • Good and Evil do objectively characterize events but we can never recognize Good or Evil or accurately apply them to label any events.

In other words, to deny or dispute the existence of God, one must be willing to accept ethical nihilism, ontological nihilism (which could include solipsism) or epistemological nihilism…all pretty uncomfortable positions.

So it turns out that the Problem of Evil backfires! Based on its core assumptions, it morphs into the Problem of Good. In this new form, it strongly supports the very thesis it was designed to debunk, that is: “God exists”.