Foolproof Theodicy?

Foolproof Theodicy? September 16, 2014

Jonathan Bernier wrote this in a comment here on this blog, and I thought it deserved wider circulation.

It seems to me that a foolproof theodicy would have to be one in which the innocent never suffer. Therefore it would have to argue that those who suffer are not innocent. Such a theodicy should be morally offensive to any decent person. Therefore a foolproof theodicy should be morally offensive. Therefore it’s not an adequate theodicy, for the purpose of theodicy is to make suffering intellectually and morally comprehensible. Therefore one cannot have a foolproof theodicy.


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  • Jeremy

    That’s basically the conclusion I came to. The fact that suffering exists eliminates the possibility of a foolproof theodicy.

  • It seems to me that a foolproof theodicy would have to be one in which the innocent never suffer

    I don’t think any theodicies I’ve looked out do satisfactorily deal with the problem of innocent suffering, but I might put it differently: a foolproof theodicy is one in which the problem of innocent suffering is resolved.

    • Jonathan Bernier

      Fair enough. I would have no objection to that formulation. My main point was that an intellectually viable theodicy is one in which the suffering of innocents is rendered morally acceptable, and the problem is that that is by definition morally unacceptable.

  • Michael Wilson

    I think Buddha would argue that to exist is to suffer and that all choose to accept the reality of their existence and so there are no innocents. Escape come from realizing existence is not real and so one does not suffer by letting go of desire.

    • Though is a Buddhist theodicy an oxymoron?

    • Jonathan Bernier

      If we grant what you are saying about the Buddha’s teaching then we are back at the problem that I flagged in my quote: victim-blaming. I am really not convinced that what you describe above is a morally adequate account of suffering, as it leads to saying that children slaughtered in genocide deserved that slaughter (for instance. We could multiply examples of the egregious character of this line of thinking). And insofar as a morally inadequate theodicy would be an intellectually inadequate theodicy then I’m not convinced that it is intellectually adequate either.

      • Michael Wilson

        Buddhism has some ideas about reality and persons that are at times shocking for those out side its tradition. Buddhism doesnt reflect much on deserve, but how to escape suffering, which in the most primitive forms of Buddhism is a task that can only be undertaken by the individual. No one deserves to suffer, only that to exist is to suffer. I’m no expert or monk, but I suspect that a Buddhist might argue that in reality, their are no children or genocide. These are illusions. Of course Buddhist dont endorse genocide since being inhumane will prevent one from attaining the enlightenment needed to escape suffering.

        • Jonathan Bernier

          I would argue that any philosophy that denies the ontic reality of suffering, up to and including genocide, is already deeply inadequate. Now, whether Buddhist thought does this or not is another question, and one for which as a Christian theologian I am ill-equipped to consider.

          • Michael Wilson

            I’m inclined to agree, but I do find Buddhist thought on this worth reflection.

  • The odyssey of theodicy …
    The oddity of theodicy?

  • Kris Rhodes

    What would a merely “successful” theodicy look like, if a “foolproof” one can’t be had?

    • Jonathan Bernier

      I’m not quite sure what you are referring to here. Is it the distinction that I draw in the discussion that Prof. McGrath references above? If so, I state that the difference is between adequate and perfect, and draw the analogy between a student who gets an A on a test and a student who gets perfect. My thinking is that the nature of suffering is such that there will always be a surd left over in any account thereof, religious or non-religious, and that such a surd can only be eliminated by blaming the victim. However blaming the victim would be morally unacceptable, and thus in eliminating that surd one has rendered an unacceptable and thus imperfect account of suffering. Put otherwise, the surd is precisely that people suffer through no fault of their own, and whilst one might be able to account for suffering in principle there are many instances in which one simply cannot explain why it is morally acceptable that this person and precisely this person suffers as she or he does.

      Some concrete examples. The mayor of Toronto, who has made headlines internationally over the last two years for his bizarre antics and abusive behaviour, has just been diagnosed with an aggressive and difficult to treat cancer. It’s not hard to think that this is divine retribution for his behaviour. That might sound all fine and good. Perhaps no surd there. But what about my first cousin, who was born with a disfiguring skin disease that later led to developmental delays, such that at age thirty he looks like a burn victim and has the approximate mental age of a ten-year-old? How does one explain that morally, whether God is in the picture or not? One cannot. Any effort to make it okay that he suffers as he does will ultimately be horrific. And that’s the surd.