Philosophy 112 - 6.3.5 Problem of Evil

The problem of evil poses a philosophical challenge to the traditional arguments (in particular the design argument) because it implies that the design of the cosmos and the designer of the cosmos are flawed. How can we assert the existence of a caring and benevolent God when there exists so much evil in the world? The glib answer to this question is to say that human moral agents, not God, are the cause of evil. Some philosophers reframe the problem of evil as the problem of suffering to place the stress of the question on the reality of suffering versus moral agency.

The Logical Problem of Evil

David Hume raised arguments not only against the traditional arguments for the existence of God but against most of the foundational ideas of philosophy. Hume, the great skeptic, starts by proposing that if God knows about the suffering and would stop it but cannot stop it, God is not omnipotent. If God is able to stop the suffering and would want to but does not know about it, then God is not omniscient. If God knows about the suffering and is able to stop it but does not wish to assuage the pain, God is not omnibenevolent. At the very least, Hume argues, the existence of evil does not justify a belief in a caring Creator.

The Evidential Problem of Evil

The evidential problem considers the reality of suffering and the probability that if an omnibenevolent divine being existed, then the divine being would not allow such extreme suffering. One of the most formidable presentations of the argument was formulated by William Rowe:

  1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  3. (Therefore) there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being. (Rowe 1979, 336)

Western Theistic Responses to the Problem of Evil

Many theists (those who assert the existence of god/s) have argued against both the logical and evidential formulations of the problem of evil. One of the earliest Christian defenses was authored by Saint Augustine. Based upon a highly Neo-Platonic methodology and ontology, Augustine argued that as God was omnibenevolent (all good), God would not introduce evil into our existence. Evil, observed Augustine, was not real. It was a privation or negation of the good. Evil therefore did not argue against the reality or being of God but was a reflection for the necessity of God. Here we see the application of a set of working principles and the stressing of a priori resulting in what could be labeled (prima facie) a counterintuitive result.

An African Perspective on the Problem of Evil

In the above sections, the problem of evil was centered in a conception of a god as all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing. Evil, from this perspective, reflects a god doing evil (we might say reflecting the moral agency of a god) and thus results in the aforementioned problem—how could a “good” god do evil or perhaps allow evil to happen? The rich diversity of African thought helps us examine evil and agency from different starting points. What if, for example, the lifting of the agency (the doing of evil) was removed entirely from the supernatural? In much of Western thought, God was understood as the creator. Given the philosophical role and responsibilities that follow from the assignment of “the entity that made all things,” reconciling evil and creation and God as good becomes a problem. But if we were to remove the concept of God from the creator role, the agency of evil (and reconciling evil with the creator) is no longer present.

Within the Yoruba-African perspective, the agency of evil is not put upon human agency, as might be expected in the West, but upon “spiritual beings other than God” (Dasaolu and Oyelakun 2015). These multiple spiritual beings, known as “Ajogun,” are “scattered around the cosmos” and have specific types of wrongdoing associated specifically with each being (Dasaolu and Oyelakun 2015). Moving the framework (or cosmology) upon which goodness and evil is understood results in a significant philosophical shift. The meaning of evil, instead of being packed with religious or supernatural connotations, has a more down-to-earth sense. Evil is not so much sin as a destruction of life. It is not an offense against an eternal Creator, but an action conducted by one human moral agent that harms another human moral agent.

Unlike Augustine’s attempt to explain evil as the negation of good (as not real), the Yoruban metaphysics asserts the necessity of evil. Our ability to contrast good and evil are required logically so that we can make sense of both concepts.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax