No Good Without Evil?

My students recently submitted assignments on the problem of evil. The reading on this topic included J. L. Mackie’s famous essay “Evil and Omnipotence” (not “Evil and Impotence,” as a student wrote in an essay for a colleague of mine).

Mackie discusses the argument that good is a statement of contrast, and thus that there cannot be good without evil. Mackie is not particularly impressed with this line of argument, but students often disagree with Mackie about this.

An interesting implication of this line of argument, one that I had not thought of before, is that, if it is correct, then it would seem to be the case that God was not good until evil came into existence, unless one wishes to posit that evil is eternal.

Since few theists would accept either possibility, then stating that good by definition requires the existence of evil cannot be an effective theistic solution to the problem of evil.

  • newenglandsun

    Interesting point. It is generally my point that evil points us to good and therefore, the evil must exist so that *we* know what genuine good looks like.

  • TomS

    One might wonder about the state of eternal bliss of heaven, whether bliss in heaven is possible without anything less-than-totally-blissful.

  • http://tunabay.com/ Keika

    I had a step-mother who wasn’t happy, unless she was mad. Bipolar issues.

  • Michael Wilson

    If it is true that things are good only compared to things that are evil, couldn’t it be that that the evil is only possible evil? God, if he were all knowing would have to know every possible configuration of existence even if he only manifested or created some of them. So even in Eden, God knew what evil was so he could call creation good. for evil to not exist even in theory, god would have to use his unlimited power to make himself so that he had no knowledge of evil, but then he would hardly be all knowing, their would be things e could possibly know if he allowed himself the ability to know them. What do you think?

    Another question on this subject is inspired by a book read from a psychiatrist named Ramachandren. In writing about his theory of consciousness he says that an essential part of it is the ability to choose between options. we are conscious because our minds a freely choosing between options as we observe the world. If our mind were based on instinct alone, like a trigger that does B when it sees A, then it would be no more aware than a mouse tap that must snap when the trigger is pushed. If that is the case, then it suggest that a being whose only possible actions would be those that bring maximum bliss would not really be aware and would not experience bliss, right? Their would be no choice of outcome. Now if it were possible to choose between maximum bliss or a whole lot of bliss, but something short of the maximum, them we would be conscious, but that would open the door for regret “oh man I picked 70 virgins but I could have had a million” And I would argue that possibility of regret opens the door for evil, since evil is getting something less than you hoped for or deserved or causing the same to someone else. what do you think?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I think you make an excellent point that this has implications not only for our thinking about the world and notions of an afterlife, but even the very notions of divine goodness and nature themselves.

  • Jakeithus

    This is an interesting post. In my own thoughts on the subject, I’ve never taken it so far as to come to the position that good requires the existence of evil, as I think that does create problems for theists.

    What does make sense for me when I look at things is that while “good” might not require the existence of evil, “best” might. All sorts of virtues that we as humans rightly celebrate; sacrifice, courage, compassion, are only capable of being expressed by humans in the face of a challenge that exists as a result of what would commonly be described as evil. What’s better, a world where we have nothing to fear, or one where we do have something to fear but the ability to overcome it? In my own mind, it’s a challenge.

    I admit, how this line of thinking might apply to God is not quite as neat and I haven’t probably thought it out fully.

  • arcseconds

    Some quality being present to the same degree everywhere means we can’t experience a distinction, might mean we’re unable to recognise the existence of the quality, can’t conceptualize it, don’t have a word for it, and it probably means there’s nothing practical to be gained by doing these things.

    That’s.not the same as the quality not existing at all.

    It’s interesting to note that a vacuum was conceived of long before anyone could experience one, so there are certainly examples where qualities (absence of matter) have been conceptualized when only their opposites (presence of matter) were known about.

  • arcseconds

    I was going to mention this in the discussion with Jon about Euthyphro’s dilemma in reply to something Ian said about God’s properties not being God’s choice, but it seems worth mentioning here.

    If freedom is really the ability to choose between right and wrong, then we can make sense of the idea of a morally perfect and free creature, one that has (or maybe at one time had) desires and predispositions that sometimes incline them towards wrongness, but never tries to fulfill those desires in those cases.
    Such a creature we could say in a sense is ‘free of desire’, not in the sense that they have desires, but that desires are not the boss of them.

    However, normally God is not thought to have any inclination towards doing bad, and therefore experiences no desires of this kind, and is considered to be completely free from badness by their very nature.

    Such a God presumably never engages in moral deliberation, never experiences temptation, and therefore never chooses good over bad (because bad is never in any sense an option), and therefore doesn’t have any need for even the concept of freedom, at least as far as its own actions are concerned.

    So there’s a real sense in which such a being is not free. They just do what they do by their very nature, just like a body orbiting another in space.

    And there’s a sense in which they’re not good either.


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