Evil and suffering in a morally good world – objections 2

Some people, such as I, propose that the suffering we see in our world may be necessary for some greater good. Others object. One of the most common objections is that there is too much suffering. Maybe some is permissible, perhaps even necessary for some good, but really?!?! This much?!?! The most obvious question to respond with is, “Then how much suffering is justifiable?” and of course, the equally obvious question, “How do you know that?” To offer absolutely nothing to the conversation except, “Well, surely this is too much” is to advance the conversation exactly nowhere. As I described in the article outlining the series of objections I would consider, don’t let people get away with complaining if they don’t have a decent “plan B” to offer the conversation.

Consider what is implied when somebody says there is “too much” of something; they have some ideal or goal in mind that requires at least some of whatever it is we are talking about. If I put too much flour in a recipe then the cookies will taste horrible. If I use the right amount then the cookies are delicious. Too little would also be problematic. If I eat too much it is because the amount of food I consume surpasses my body’s caloric needs. If I spend too much time at work then either I am not being paid enough or I have a work-aholic problem.

Essentially we’re talking about a Goldilocks level of suffering. The claim is made that the suffering in the world is a papa bear portion whereas it ought to be a mama bear portion. I don’t know of anybody who claims we’re looking at a baby bear portion.

In every case, though, whatever it is that we are saying there is “too much” of (flour, food, work, suffering) serves the purpose of being the cause of some other positive result that we seek. Flour is not something we care for on its own, we use it to make cookies. Food is certainly delightful on its own (well, not cooked vegetables!) but it also serves the important function of nourishing our bodies. Work is necessary to pay the bills, and some people definitely love their jobs, but most of us understand the importance of leisure time; that whole work / life balance thing. When we say there is “too much” of something we implicitly acknowledge that whatever it is we are talking about is serving some purpose beyond itself. Thus, as a very good starting point, those who say this world has “too much” suffering are implicitly acknowledging that suffering serves some purpose. This is precisely my point in the original article I wrote on the subject. If suffering served no purpose at all then even the slightest bit of suffering would be too much; we should just get rid of it entirely! The charge of “too much” only makes sense because we agree that some good is coming from it; at least some suffering is necessary. The question then becomes whether the cause exceeds what is required for the effect. In other words, did God put too much flour in the cookie dough?

In order to answer the question of whether there is too much suffering in the world relative to the desired effect (i.e. what God wanted out of the world) we have to consider the relationship between suffering and the heroism that emerges from it (among other positive effects). In this article I will consider two broad questions. First, could heroism exist in the absence of any kind of challenge of any sort? Second, what does the ideal hero-building world look like? As we explore these questions the idea that there is “too much” suffering will be examined.

[While I focus on the problem of pain/suffering throughout this series, I am only touching on the problem evil. This is because suffering has been on my mind a lot lately due to life circumstances. Evil is a whole other kettle of fish but, honestly, one that I actually think is much easier to deal with. Suffering, it seems to me, is the bigger elephant in the room.]

Suffering-free heroism?

Part of the complex picture of good that arises from suffering is the nobility of the human spirit that grows from the dirt of unpleasant circumstances. When a person suffers there are two ways that heroism can emerge. First, heroism is possible for the person who is suffering. Second, heroism is possible in those around the sufferer as they respond to somebody else’s suffering. As I discussed in the original article, the very nature of suffering is such that it gives us the choice of how we are going to respond. Opportunity and choice are absolutely necessary if we are to have the freedom to choose to live heroically, virtuously. Whether we choose to act heroically when given the opportunity, well, that’s up to us. All God can do is create a world with sufficient opportunity and creatures with sufficient freedom, after that the ball is in our court.

Really, is that all God could do? Could heroism (or any virtue) simply “come to be” without having been developed through choices made? Could we have great depth of character simply instilled in us so that the world could be free of any challenges, hardships, suffering, death or any kind of unpleasantness at all? What if God created us with all the ideal virtues and he created the world to be absolutely “perfect.”

The first problem with that entire concept is a simple one and I described it in my original article; the very concept of virtue is meaningless in the “perfect world.” In a world devoid of any possibility of harm, nothing I do could possibly be either evil or good. Therefore, why have virtues in such a world? They would be an absolutely irrelevant feature of the human species, like having the ability to swim 100 km non-stop in a world devoid of water, or the ability to juggle in a world without gravity. Even if God instilled in us the greatest of all possible virtues, frankly we would never even know that we had such virtues if we lived in a world where nothing we did was either evil or good. The very concept of virtues would be utterly meaningless so it would be pointless for God to instill them in us.

But there is a second problem with that idea; it fails to grasp the very nature of virtue. Consider the following example. At some of the heavy traffic intersections downtown they have a special signal for blind people. When the walk signal says “go” then a distinct chirping sound is heard. When a blind person hears the chirping sound then they know it is safe to cross the street. This helps keep blind people safe.

Not all intersections have this feature. Suppose I see a blind person at an intersection without the chirping alarm. When the walk signal says, “go” I politely let them know it is safe to cross. The chirping alarm and I have both performed precisely the same function, practically speaking – a function that aids somebody else – so would it be safe to say that I and the chirping alarm are equally virtuous? Am I not morally better than some automated alarm that’s plugged into the traffic light electronic system? Clearly the human decision to help another person is morally significant whereas the light signal is amoral in nature, neither good nor bad.

Where is the difference? It lies, partly, in the reality of choice. Virtues (like heroism) involve comprehension, intentionality and choice (possibly other factors too). I have to decide to do something helpful before my action is virtuous. If, however, I have been automatically endowed with such character from the moment of my birth then the option of doing something non-virtuous was never available to me. For human actions to be truly heroic the option of not doing the right thing must be a real option otherwise our “heroism” is no more authentic than the chirping signal’s “heroism.” If heroism could be magically bestowed upon people then having such heroism placed in our nature without our choice would turn us into “hero robots” who simply act without choosing. But that is not true heroism. Because we have to sincerely choose between two alternatives without having the outcome of our choice predetermined for us by some implanted hero-nature, heroism and virtue are only possible through the choices we make in the life circumstances we face. Virtue cannot be “installed at start-up” so to speak. Just as it is logically impossible to “force love” it is equally logically impossible to “impose virtue.”

And if it is not logically possible for humans to be endowed with heroism prior to making heroic choices then not even God could accomplish such a feat. After all, Omnipotence entails the ability to do what is logically possible. Here is an article that provides an overview of the subject of Omnipotence and its inherent limitations, and here is another one that dives into it with some more depth. In both articles you will see that Omnipotence is understood to be limited by what is logically possible without being stripped of the validity of being “all-powerful” as the word implies. If “instilled heroism” is logically impossible then not even almighty God can make it happen.

Thus a world devoid of any kind of difficulty, hardship or challenge (a “perfect world”) that is also packed with heroes, is a logically impossible world. The first option is not available to us; there must be some difficulty that we need to deal with. But the question is, how much suffering is “sufficient” as I mentioned earlier? Surely this world has gone overboard! This leads us to our second general question, could the same magnitude of heroism come to be with less suffering? To answer this, we must consider the ideal hero-building world.

The ideal hero-building world

Why this world? Couldn’t the entire hero-building enterprise unfold in a better world? Let’s imagine altering our present world through a substantial reduction in suffering on the one hand, and a substantial increase on the other hand. What effects would those have on the heroism of our world?

Suppose, for instance, that only one human every year contracted a deadly disease. Just a single human out of the entire human race. That sounds like a much better world already, doesn’t it? But what effect might that have on human heroism? Well, a few obvious observations. There would probably be other people who would respond by helping that poor soul but how many would? For instance, if there was only one sick person per year, and this year the person was in the remote recesses of Uzbekistan, what can I possibly do to help them? Even if I wanted to, I am powerless because they live so ridiculously far away from me. It would not be wise of me to go and try to help them. Just imagine if every person on the planet jumped a plane the moment the opportunity to help the sick person became publically known. Uzbekistan would be bursting at the seams; too many cooks in the kitchen! While a single person suffers, the vast majority of the billions of people on the planet are, practically speaking, completely helpless to do anything. For the vast majority of people on the planet there would be no opportunity for heroism.

But there is another problem with such a world; would we even know what to do to help them? With an almost total lack of suffering and hardship in our everyday lives we would have no context for understanding how we could help when the opportunity arose. We would have no experience, nor would those around us have any knowledge of what to do. Role models and our own practice make us proficient at helping others; in a world with too little suffering we would have neither. The less suffering there is the fewer opportunities to practice and therefore the less equipped we are to deal with suffering when it does cross our paths. We need to live in a world with a fairly frequent occurrence of suffering in order to be properly skilled, at a moment’s notice, to do something about it. Even if I, personally, am not skilled in all these areas, humanity needs to collectively have some idea of what to do. Even in Uzbekistan.

Now of course one diseased person per year is remarkably low. What about two? Still too low. Even if we had dozens, or hundreds of diseased people each year we would not develop the skills to engage such hardship in any meaningful way. Thus we find that there is a line somewhere (I am not going to venture a guess as to where that line exactly is) below which suffering and hardship would be so infrequent as to render us unable to collectively learn how to deal with it. In that situation any attempts at heroism would almost certainly fail and despair would be the order of the day instead of hope. Despair and, of course, apathy. The guy is in Uzbekistan, what can I do? Shrug shoulders and move on. There can be no heroism if our reaction is “we have no idea what to do here…” and “Where in the world is Uzbekistan?”

In a world with too little suffering the potential for heroism would be diminished far more rapidly than the suffering; this would result in a world where suffering would not accomplish its purpose. So too little suffering turns out to be counter-productive, but what about an increase in suffering? Would a world with greater hardship end up giving us greater opportunity for heroism? Perhaps, but even that conceptual world finds an upper limit in its hero-building potential. If every human were stricken with cancer simultaneously, for instance, then there would be no healthy humans to heroically aid those who were dying. That may provide plenty of opportunities for heroism to that one generation but there would be no subsequent generations of heroes. Thus ends the entire system; not so good after all.

What we need is a world where most of humanity is not enduring great personal hardship at any given moment (their time will come…) so that they are able to provide a stable base for indirect heroism in the lives of those who are. Through the work of the many, society can continue and progress while the few are facing their own personal hardship. There should always be more civilians than soldiers, for instance. There should be more doctors and nurses than patients. There should be more people who have their limbs than those who have lost them. We need more peace than war, more loving parents than abusive ones, more lovers than rapists, more natural deaths than murders and so on. Not surprisingly, this is the world we find ourselves in. If the pendulum swings too far toward disaster then the stability – even the very existence – of humanity is threatened.

Too little suffering would yield despair because we wouldn’t know how to help. Too much suffering would yield despair because anything we did would be pointless. In the middle is that “sweet spot” where heroism can flourish because it can still be grounded in a general attitude of hope across humanity. Our present world avoids those two extremes and is somewhere near the “sweet spot” where hope is the grounding of successful heroism.

The world needs to look something like our world in order to succeed in raising up the greatest number and quality of heroes. When confronted with evil and suffering in our world perhaps we should spend less time asking, “Could God have done away with this particular situation?” and start asking, “What am I going to do about this particular situation?” In other words, start acting heroically. God created the opportunities, what are you going to do about it?

Gratuitous Evil & Suffering

I wanted to end with some thoughts on the claim that some instances of evil & suffering are gratuitous. This is a common charge. Consider what the word “gratuitous” means. I’m pretty sure the definition that’s in mind when it is used in this context is,

“2. being without apparent reason, cause, or justification.”


The concept appears to be that some evil / suffering might be justifiable, but there is just too much of it and there is no reason for certain instances and/or varieties of it. If my theory is right regarding the relationship between moral freedom and the hardships of this world on the one hand, and character development (i.e. hero-building) on the other hand, then it is hard to see how any evil or suffering could be gratuitous, by definition.

Even though I am not really addressing evil directly in this series (as I mentioned earlier) I’ll just briefly touch on it here. What people often forget is that evil is not a thing. Evil is a choice that a person made. A bad / non-virtuous / non-heroic choice. Speaking of the “evil in the world” is to fundamentally misunderstand the issue. It would be more accurate to describe it as the “evil choices that humans make in the world.” The root problem is not the evil – as if evil were some cosmic blob of substance – but the fact that humans choose to introduce said evil into the world. Evil, after all, does not magically spring into being out of nothing; it has a cause and we are its cause.

However, as I described in the original article, evil is only possible in a world with moral freedom and it is this same moral freedom that allows us the opportunity to become people of great virtue. When considering evil, then I would grant that every single instance of evil is unnecessary, unjustified! In one sense it’s all gratuitous. But that’s not the fundamental issue, what we need to think about is moral freedom. The question to ask is whether there is gratuitous moral freedom. Do we have more freedom than we ought to? Should God have reduced everybody’s freedom? Should some humans not have any moral freedom? That might sound like a good idea until (as is a common theme in this series) we consider the unintended consequences of limited human freedom. If we start stripping people of their moral freedom, well I think it should be apparent what kind of pickle we will get ourselves into. Where do we draw the line? What other consequences might there be to such a world? Again, if somebody thinks that’s how God should have created the world get them to describe it in some detail and see if such a world is either logically possible or qualitatively better than ours.

What about suffering? Is some of it gratuitous? Moral freedom provides the opportunity for the development of character by choosing good over evil (an opportunity which can obviously be eschewed) and suffering also provides the opportunity for development of character by choosing to respond heroically (which, once again, can be eschewed). The only circumstance under which suffering could theoretically be gratuitous is if there was not even the possibility that any character development, any heroism, could arise as a result of the suffering. Even when we hear about some horrific suffering in somebody else’s life, a suffering that hypothetically offered them no opportunity to respond heroically, the moment we end up talking about it and dissecting it we have the opportunity to act heroically by helping prevent those in the future or preparing for the next instance, etc. Indeed, the moment any human is consciously aware of any instance of suffering the potential for heroism is immediately present. Thus the only instances of suffering that could, even in theory, be absolutely gratuitous would be instances that no human was aware of, by definition. But if we don’t know about them, how can we know such gratuitous suffering exists? We are speculating at that point.

[I can already see skeptics jumping all over animal suffering prior to humanity – I’ll take a closer look at that later.]

Certainly we can think of many, many, instances of suffering where nobody became a better person because of it (some people descend into bitterness, self-pity or maybe hatred of the world) but the problem is not with the suffering, it is with the person’s response to it. As with moral freedom, if we start eliminating those instances of choice where we know the opportunity is not going to be seized, there are unintended consequences which are often not considered carefully.

There is another side of the whole “gratuitous suffering” discussion that does not sit well with me either. When people get all up-in-arms about some of the suffering in the world and they call it “gratuitous” what that says to me is that they are quite content to let some of the suffering remain. It seems to me that there is something horribly wrong with a person who is “content” with a certain amount of suffering after they have gotten rid of the really bad stuff. It would be like somebody demanding that God should have prevented some disease in a child, but they say nothing about diseases in adults. Would this person, if they became a doctor, only work to get rid of childhood diseases and just leave the adults to die? Are humans disposable once they have reached the age of 18? 40? 60? 80? How did you decide the age of expendability, anyway? How inhumane is that! There are documented examples in history of societies who have decided that certain demographics are worth protecting and other demographics are expendable. I don’t think I need to tell you how horrific the results are of such types of thinking.

If we believe that some suffering is gratuitous and some is not, and if God were to eliminate the gratuitous suffering then it naturally follows that humans would be less concerned with the suffering that remained. After all, it is justifiable. It would become far too easy to shrug it off.

It seems to me that the right approach is to recognize that none of the suffering in our world is gratuitous at all, and all of it, absolutely every instance of it, deserves our attention as we work to alleviate it. We should never embrace suffering nor excuse it, but take it seriously and work hard to alleviate it whenever and wherever we are able. Placing it on a scale and deciding what’s in and what’s out seems to me just about as heartless a thing as any human can do. It gives us grounds to ignore the suffering of some people because, “oh well, at least she wasn’t a child” or “hey, that just happens in our world.” The last thing I would want to do is shrug off another human being simply because their suffering didn’t happen to fit into my subjective definition of gratuitous. Some people complain that God should not have allowed children to die of cancer but when my grandmother died I can assure that was devastating for me. She was not expendable, even at 80. She was still fully human, no more and no less so than a child.

It seems to me that we ought to deal with evil and suffering as package deals instead of dividing them up into evils that we will allow, suffering we are willing to put up with and those that are “gratuitous.” Either God has sufficient reason for allowing evil and suffering (of all magnitudes) or he does not. Our duty, though, is to combat all of it instead of finding grounds to shirk our heroic responsibilities in some cases.


About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
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