Just a quick follow-up to my recent post, "Vicious Philosophical Reasoning?". In response to my post, Keith DeRose brought to my attention Nick Trakakis' recent article, "Theodicy: The Solution to the Problem of Evil, or Part of the Problem?". I definitely recommend reading it. Here are a few choice excerpts that spoke to me, beginning with several amazing passages by D.Z. Phillips and Kenneth Surin:
It is true that sometimes considering a matter further is a sign of reasonableness and maturity. But this cannot be stated absolutely, since at other times readiness to be open-minded about matters is a sign of a corrupt mind. There are screams and screams, and to ask of what use are the screams of the innocent, as Swinburne’s defense would have us do, is to embark on a speculation we should not even contemplate. We have our reasons, final human reasons, for putting a moral full stop at many places. (Phillips 2004, p. 115)
Theodicy, by its very nature, involves the application of the principles of reason to a cluster of problems which are essentially such that they cannot be resolved by the mere application of rational principles. Evil and suffering in their innermost depths are fundamentally mysterious; they confound the human mind. And yet the goal of theodicy is, somehow, to render them comprehensible, explicable. (Surin 1986, pp. 52-3)
Given the nature of many of the evils human beings undergo, it would make little sense to speak of compensations for them after death. It does not even make sense to speak of compensation, in this life, with respect to many of our losses – the loss of a child, the end of a friendship, various forms of injustice which create harm, a harm done to someone who dies before any restitution can be made and so on. In some of these circumstances, the law decrees financial compensation, but one almost always hears those who receive it say, ‘Nothing, of course, can compensate for…’ Faced with this undeniable fact the picture cannot change by changing the landscape from an earthly to a heavenly one. (Phillips 2004, pp. 85-86).
And finally Trakakis:
Some theodicies, I concede, do appear to create hope and meaning even in situations where there seemed to be none. But such hope and meaning is, I claim, illusory. For the kind of meaning theodicies offer does not help us make moral sense of tragedy and misfortune, but rather (as argued earlier) provides a picture of suffering that has all manner of morally (and socially) unwelcome consequences, such as undermining our moral practices, failing to countenance the full depth of evil, and treating the sufferer as a mere means to some divine end, usually an end that the sufferer has not themselves chosen or endorsed. People in the midst of great adversity often sense this, and that is indeed why, in many cases, offering a theodicy to someone who is undergoing some terrible suffering has the counter-productive effect of adding to that person’s woes, or at least bringing them little or no comfort.
In attempting to make sense of the realities of evil and suffering, theodicists inculcate a sense of detachment both in themselves and in their readers. They never stop to ask, however, whether we should, or even could, be detached from the stark realities of evil in the ways they propose. No question is ever raised as to whether there might be some moral danger involved in promoting a strategy of detachment...
Thus, the distancing strategies promoted by those who approach theodicy as a purely theoretical undertaking only add to the evils of the world, rather than illuminating or counteracting them.
Kenneth Surin, similarly, argues that the theoretical pursuit of theodicy can have disastrous moral consequences, not only for writers and readers of theodicies, but for society at large. To view theodicy as an exclusively academic undertaking, notes Surin, "…is already to possess the perspective on good and evil which Max Weber found to be characteristic of modern times; namely, an essentially bureaucratic view of the nature of good and evil. [Surin explains by way of a footnote that, ‘It is typical of the bureaucratic view of good and evil that it regards them in an abstract way, as something involving roles of office, administrative procedures, protocols, etc., but rarely personal guilt and responsibility. The evil bureaucrat par excellence, who rendered evil “banal”, was of course Adolf Eichmann.’] If this is in fact the case, then to regard theodicy as a purely intellectual exercise is to provide – albeit unwittingly – a tacit sanction for the evil that exists on our appalling planet." (Trakakis 2014, pp. 183-4).
Or, as Trakakis' epigraph states, "No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children." – Rabbi Greenberg (1989: 315)
- Greenberg, I. (1989). Cloud of smoke, pillar of fire. In Roth and Berenbaum (Eds.), Holocaust: Religious and philosophical implications. pp. 305–345
- Phillips, D. Z. (2004). The problem of evil and the problem of God. London: SCM Press
- Surin, K. (1986). Theology and the problem of evil. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.