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How are you using the term "moral evil"? I took it to mean something very close to "evil that is a result of immoral actions," in which case the unfair distribution of natural endowments will not be a moral evil. The reason I took it to have that meaning (in the context of debates about the problem of evil) is precisely that the distinction between moral evils and natural evils is usually drawn in the context of the free will defense, and in that context, using "natural evil" to refer to any evil that is not the result of immoral actions is just a way of trying to pick out all the evils not covered (apparently) by the free will defense.

It's true that the unfair distribution of natural endowments is not similar to the usual examples of natural evils (earthquakes, disease, etc.) But it's not too dissimilar either, insofar as earthquakes, disease, etc., harm some people more than others, through no fault of their own.

Ultimately, there's a challenge for theists who offer a free will defense to account for natural evils, but depending on what they say about this, I don't see why the unfair distribution of natural talents should be thought of as a harder case than the normal examples of natural evil.


Whoops, sorry. Capcha was acting funny.

Marcus Arvan

Moti: I'm not yet convinced it's a problem. First, one could argue that the diversity of natural talents is necessary for the world to be as interesting and varied a place as it is. I myself find this pretty compelling. The world is fascinating and challenging precisely because of the many varied natures that coexist within it. Now, you might argue in response that some of these natures are bad -- but in that case the free will person can dig in their heels and say that it's in each person's capacity to choose how to deal with their bad luck. And that seems pretty compelling to me too. We're all dealt different hands, so to speak, but perhaps the task for each of us is to deal with those hands. Moreover, it's not implausible that even those born "lucky" -- the rich or brilliant -- don't have much of a leg up where it counts, namely the development of their own souls (after all, many wealthy and brilliant people turn out to be mean, miserable individuals).

In short, I think the free will proponent can say (A) the vast plurality of natures makes the world a world an interesting, challenging place worth living in, and (B) each person has the good of freely choosing how to respond to the hand that they are dealt.

Of course, at this point, you might say that some people -- cancer patients and holocaust victims -- are dealt such a bad lot, with so much unnecessary suffering that neither of the points I just made are sufficient to absolve God...but in that case I think we're right back to the old problem of unnecessary suffering, rather than a new problem.


Interesting problem and two interesting responses.

I agree with Daniel that this may not be an instance of moral evil in the usual sense. I do think it is different in an interesting way from the usual sort of natural evil. I'm still not sure for myself what to make of it though.

I think Marcus's point about the unlucky still having sufficient means to develop their souls is compelling. Perhaps God wants personal development or works that do not require great natural endowments.

I would add that this sort of injustice, at the social level, might be an "opportunity" for soul-making too, i.e., something like an instance of Mackie's "first order evil" which provides an opportunity for the development of "second order good." (Personally, I find much of what Mackie says against this view compelling.) If the world is unjust, we have a chance to work to make it just.

FWIW, Rawls's theory does not seek to do away with the natural lottery, but rather to develop an account of justice in a society that must face this sort of natural inequality. Maybe this is what God wants us to do?

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I am not sure what to make of this myself, so I appreciate the comments.

As I see it, the distinction between natural and moral evil is supposed to capture the difference between pain and suffering that results from natural processes (e.g., earthquakes and tornadoes) and pain and suffering that results from the actions of moral agents (e.g., war and genocide). Note that, if one thinks of God as a moral agent, as some do, then one could argue that natural evil is also pain and suffering that results from the actions of a moral agent, namely, God. So perhaps we want to say that “moral evil” is pain and suffering that results from the actions of *human* agents. Be that as it may, perhaps Daniel is right that this is not the usual way in which the moral/natural evil distinction is drawn in discussions about the problem of evil.

As for Marcus’ (A), I’ve always found the “evil is necessary to make the world such-and-such” response rather odd. Surely, being an infinite 3O being, God could find a better way to make the world an interesting place than to have bad luck bestowed on innocent people.

As for Marcus’ (B), one could argue that, in certain cases of bad luck, people’s options are quite limited (perhaps even nonexistent). Consider, for example, microcephalics. Now that’s a really “bad hand.” Can microcephalics really choose how to respond to the hand that they were dealt? What are their opportunities for soul-developing?

So I suppose one could say that the unfair distribution of natural talents is different from other kinds of natural evils insofar as it is the sort of evil that limits (or even nullifies) people’s abilities and opportunities to respond to their bad luck in a soul-making way.

David Morrow

I'm kind of thinking out loud here, but here's an argument that the talent lottery is in the same category as the "tornado lottery": Either talents are distributed through some "unmanaged" natural processes (e.g., meiosis, etc.) or God actively "manages" the process to determine the distribution. If talents are distributed through unmanaged processes, then someone's getting a "bad hand" is just as natural an event as someone's house being struck by a tornado. If God actively manages the distribution of talents, then it's likely that God actively manages other natural processes (e.g., the weather). In that case, both the talent lottery and the not-getting-hit-by-lightning lottery would be of the same kind.

Now, if we can write off cases like microcephaly or Tay-Sachs as aberrant disasters of an unmanaged process, akin to tornados, we're left with a natural distribution of talents in which some people get different levels of each "talent" than others. One lesson to learn from Rawls is that what counts as a "bad hand" depends on social arrangements. So, maybe a theist could defend the view by saying that it's *our* fault, not God's, that some people suffer because they lack natural talents that society rewards. In that case, losing the talent lottery *is* the result of moral evil--namely, humanity's unjust social arrangements according to which people can have shitty lives simply because of their genetic endowment. Of course, having to "write off" cases like microcephaly and Tay-Sachs is a pretty big dodge....

What do you think?

Moti Mizrahi

I think that having to “write off” cases like microcephaly is a big dodge. Here’s why:

As I see it, the point of appealing to free will in the first place is that evil which is the result of rape, murder, war, and genocide is not God’s fault. For a theist, God gave people free will, but some people choose to do bad things. Of course, this appeal to free will doesn’t take care of evil which is the result of disease, famine, natural disasters, etc. So, faced with the reality of natural evil, theists say things like “natural evil is necessary.”

All of this would not work as far as the natural lottery is concerned. Why not? To put it crudely, God cannot say “I gave everyone free will, so it’s not my fault that microcephalics suffer.” This is so because, as a human being, free will doesn’t do you much good when you have a small brain. [Perhaps I am not trying hard enough, but I simply cannot imagine a social arrangement in which having a small brain would not make one's life unbearable.]

Now, why is the unfair distribution of brain power a *moral* evil? It is a moral evil because it is unfair. And if Rawls is right, the fact that it is unfair means that it is unjust. And justice is a moral concept.

elisa freschi

I agree with Moti, against Marcus that the argument

"First, one could argue that the diversity of natural talents is necessary for the world to be as interesting and varied a place as it is. I myself find this pretty compelling."

sounds quite awkward, especially if one imagines to explain to abused children how interesting the world is made through their suffering.

I recently read an interesting book by François Brun (Pour que l'homme devient Dieu) which, instead, inspired me to suggest the following answer: 1. Assuming that the initial argument was meant for a theist, the ultimate good, for a theist, is salvation in/through God's love. 2. God does not love us for what we achieve, but for the way we respond to his/her love. 3. A seriously handicapped person or even a person whose flesh is weak (whatever it means) can be hindered in his/her success in responding to God's love. She or he might fall back again and again. 4. But God will not judge her/him for these falls, but rather for the attempts.
In this sense, if you received 10, you will be judged differently than if you received only 1. The first person bears much more responsibility to succeed. Even a small step from the person suffering of microcephaly will be enough to save her/him.

Marcus Arvan

Elisa (& Moti): my point was that I don't think the issue of natural talents is a *distinct* problem...but rather just a case of an already-existing problem: the problem of natural evils (Moti was aiming to present a new problem, or at least that's how I understood his post). My suggested path of argument may or may not be adequate in response to natural evil -- but my point is that the issue is essentially the same one as that of natural evil. The issue, in both cases, is unmitigated, uncompensated suffering caused by natural facts about the world.

Moti Mizrahi

Marcus: I suppose what I said about the natural lottery being the sort of natural evil that takes away free will was not convincing. :)


Moti: I think I see what you're getting at. But I wouldn't say the natural lottery takes away free will, but rather that it limits some people's choices in ways that interfere with their pursuit of or ability to enact their conception of the good life for a human being. And the worry you have (I think) is that this may mean that God (who is in control of or at least responsible for the natural lottery) makes it the case that some people are not able to respond effectively or appropriately to Him.

And then why should that be their fault rather than God's? Because, after all, He did not distribute to them the natural gifts they need to respond to Him in an appropriate or effective way? So their freedom, such as it is, is irrelevant because He didn't give them enough to get the job done? Their failure to respond to Him appropriately cannot be attributed to misuses of their freedom.

Interesting. I worry that there are two conceptions of freedom here (e.g., metaphysical freedom vs. some notion of capacities to act?).

I'm also drawn back to Elisa's suggestion that more ability implies more responsibility to respond to God's love. I'm not necessarily committed to it, but it makes me wonder if we are assuming that some people who lose out in the natural lottery--whether they are severely impaired or merely not very intelligent--do not have the requisite means to respond to God?

We may assume that natural gifts are important to success in all kinds of human tasks, especially competitive ones. Should we also assume this about a person's relationship to God, or the demands God makes of a person? Some people have what they need to do this, in terms of natural gifts, and others don't?

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks very much, Walter. I like your way of putting it.

Could you say a little bit more about the distinction between metaphysical freedom and capabilities?


Glad to help. And I think now that my worry about two conceptions of freedom was unfounded. I only meant what I said at the start: an inability of some sort does not imply a lack of free will. E.g., my inability to fly by flapping my arms does not imply that I do not have some responsibility for what I do. I thought there might be a deeper worry here, but now I don't think so. My inability to do X does not mean that I am not free, in a general sense, but it does mean that my failure to do X cannot be attributed to some misuse of my freedom, since I never had the freedom to do X anyway. And this latter point is the one you're making.

Moti Mizrahi

Walter: Thanks again for the helpful comments.

You're right about the point I am making: if one lacks the ability to do X, then that means that one's failure to do X cannot be attributed to a misuse of one's freedom.

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