welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please

Problems of Belief & Unbelief

Moral Manipulation & the Problem of Evil

Jimmy Alfonso Licon challenges a traditional Christian explanation of suffering.

There is a vast amount of suffering in the world: war, famine, disease, hurricanes, earthquakes, rape, murder, the Holocaust, the Crusades, terrorist attacks, and the list goes on. Some people suffer horribly, others don’t, and it seems you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it. This is precisely what you would expect if, underneath it all, the universe were just indifferent.

All of which poses a serious problem for the belief that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing God who is perfectly benevolent. The problem can be simply stated as follows: if God can do anything, and has perfect love for us, then why would He allow such suffering? 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. If there was a God who could do anything, and who loved us perfectly, He would have prevented this suffering. For centuries philosophers have grappled with this problem. It is called the problem of evil.

The problem of evil is perhaps the most popular argument atheists employ. The argument is that since it’s obvious that God hasn’t eliminated, or prevented, the suffering around us, there cannot be a God who is all-powerful and perfectly benevolent. The Holocaust is a prime example of the problem. If there is a God who allows such horrendous suffering, He must either lack the capacity to prevent it, or He is not perfectly benevolent.

There should be no doubt that this argument poses a significant obstacle to belief in an omnipotent, benevolent God. However, theists have responses available, and undoubtedly the most popular of these, to which they often appeal before any other, is known as the free-will defense.

The Free-Will Defense

Some suffering has non-human causes, such as earthquakes and tsunamis, but much is caused by the actions of human beings. According to the free-will defense, God allows humans to act in ways which cause suffering because the alternative would be to take away our free choice, which He does not wish to do. This attempt to reconcile suffering and the existence of God is popular for at least two reasons. The first is that it shifts the blame for evil, at least in some cases, onto those who act freely to bring about suffering. If Bob freely chooses to kill his wife, it would be unfair to blame his actions on God. The second reason is that it makes use of the idea that freedom is intrinsically valuable, independently of how it is used. In fact, it suggests that our ability to make our own free decisions is so important that it is a good outweighing even all the bad things people choose to do. If people choose to do bad things occasionally, this is supposedly outweighed by the moral good of people having the opportunity to choose – which necessarily entails having the capacity to cause suffering.

© istockphoto.com/stilletto82 2013

Consider the following example:

Suppose that Jones has suffered a series of financial setbacks recently. He is so badly off financially that he considers robbing his local bank. After thinking about this for a bit, he decides against it.

Surely, Jones deserves moral praise for his decision not to rob the bank, because he chose not to rob the bank. If, on the contrary, he had been biologically programmed to do the right thing, there would be no reason to praise him for not robbing the bank. Consider a similar example:

Suppose that Smith finds himself in a desperate financial situation. He thinks about the matter and decides that he’ll rob the local bank. But before he acts on his decision, a device is installed in his brain that prevents him from doing anything wrong. Therefore he does not rob the bank.

We think that Jones deserves moral praise, while Smith does not, even though they are both in a difficult financial situation, and neither of them robbed the bank. The difference between Jones and Smith is that Jones might have freely robbed the bank, while Smith could not have robbed the bank. No matter what he did, the device in his brain would have prevented him from choosing to rob the bank. Simply put, we praise people for their actions, not robots, and for a good reason. The former have free will (i.e., they choose to do the good, rather than the bad, freely), while the latter do not. Let’s call this difference the value of choice.

Theists who use the free-will defense as an explanation for why God allows much of the evil we see around us are relying on the value of choice. If God is to be right in allowing suffering, it must be because there are greater moral goods that could only be had if the possibility of certain kinds of evils is permitted. For instance, if there were never any danger, then there would be no way anyone could exhibit robust courage: exhibiting ‘courage’ in the absence of any actual danger lacks moral value, because it’s not really courage. Similarly, there is little moral value in having to make the morally good choice. There is no sense praising someone for doing something if they could not have done otherwise. So just as we think that having freedom is valuable, says the theist, there is value in having the capacity to perform evil acts, but refraining. Therefore, if we want to have moral goods like praising someone for being a good person, we must put them in a position where they could choose to act otherwise, but refrain from doing so.

The theist might further argue that the value of choice is determined by the depth and kinds of evil acts that we could perform but don’t. If we could only perform acts which caused very little suffering (e.g. pinching someone), then we would deserve very little praise for refraining from such minimally bad acts. However, if we want people to be robustly morally praiseworthy, because they refrain from performing horrendously evil actions, especially in desperate situations, they must have the capacity to commit such acts. Although granting this kind of freedom is bound to result in people like Hitler from time to time, this is a necessary evil if we are to gain the moral good of having those with the capacity to perform evil yet whole refrain from doing so. So if God is to maximise moral goods like the value of choice, He must grant us the capacity to commit horrifyingly evil acts, with the hope that we will choose not to do so.

Freedom-Canceling & Moral Manipulation

Now I want to explore three problems with the free-will defense.

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 just 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 to do horrendous evil in the hope that he would freely choose the good outweigh the suffering he actually inflicted, on Jewish people and others? It is difficult to answer ‘yes.’ On the contrary, it is difficult to see how there could be any justification, even in principle, for such suffering. Furthermore, surely no matter how valuable having free will is, it is not clear that this has greater, or even equal, moral weight, to the moral goods that would have come to fruition if the people killed in the Holocaust had instead survived and prospered. Generally, it is difficult to see how, because of the value of choice, having the freedom to do something terrible has greater moral weight than the results of lacking the capacity to do something as grotesque as the Holocaust. The free-will defense amounts to putting the value of choice above all other kinds of moral good.

Secondly, victims of the Holocaust not only suffered misery and an untimely death; additionally their freedom to make their own choices was stripped away from them. The freedom of some people to do whatever they choose, by its very nature comes with an huge moral price tag: it is freedom-canceling where other people are concerned. My freedom to kill a bank-teller comes at the price of the freedom she would have exercised if I had allowed her to live. Thus the freedom exercised by some people cancels the freedom of others. This problem we can call the freedom-canceling worry.

Finally, there is a third, even more absolute worry for the free-will defense. 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. This is what Freedom also recommends for the police department: they should wait until Jones’ has robbed the bank and murdered innocent civilians. They should allow him to exercise his free will without intervention. If the police interfere, and arrest Jones before he robs the bank, they will have deprived him of the chance to choose freely not to rob the bank and murder the customers, interfering with his free will. If, however, you think that the police should arrest Jones before he has the chance to rob the bank and kill innocent bystanders, you think there is something that has greater moral weight than Jones’ opportunity to exercise his free will. In short, you reject the free-will defense.

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. We are rightto think that the police should arrest Jones and prevent unnecessary bloodshed. It is morally preferable to interfere with Jones expressing his free will to prevent murder, compared with allowing him the chance to refuse of his own free will to rob the bank and kill innocents.

It seems that God disagrees. After all, if there is a God, then He knows everything about the kinds and amounts of suffering in the world, and He could do something about it; and we are to suppose that, being benevolent, He would want to do something about it. But He does not. However, it looks like the right thing to do would be to intervene, at least sometimes, if it will prevent a good deal of pain and suffering. Surely this is compatible with still allowing people a good deal of freedom? It might be striking the right balance, by letting people exercise free will – except in those instances where they make horrendously evil choices.

Imagine there is a device which can modify brain waves such that we cannot do anything that’s morally repugnant, e.g., with an exception for self-defense, it prevents violent acts. Although you could intend to commit horrible acts, you are never in a position to act upon those intentions, because the device in your brain short-circuits your acting-upon-decisions neural architecture. Call this practice moral manipulation. Would it be ethical to install such devices?

Indeed, the limited scope of these freedom-canceling devices is some justification for installing them, in that they single out specific behavior you shouldn’t be free to engage in anyway. Does anyone seriously think that we should have the unchallenged freedom to rape and murder? However, if this sort of device could be imagined by us, an equivalent could have been realized by God – and surely He would have had a moral obligation to realize it. The free-will defense cannot explain why God didn’t take such basic preemptive measures.

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. Put differently, the free-will defense simply gets the moral facts wrong. Therefore the free-will defense fails to reconcile the existence of God and the existence of evil. So it fails to solve the problem of evil.

© Jimmy Alfonso Licon 2013

Jimmy Alfonso Licon is a philosophy doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park. He works primarily in philosophy of mind, epistemology, and applied ethics.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X