The saga continues. I wrote about how God is justified for creating a world more or less like this one because hardship and difficulty are the only ways that many virtues could possibly emerge. Lose the bad stuff of humanity and you lose the good with it. Such an idea will naturally be objected to, and I am working my way through those objections in a series of articles.
Suppose somebody might agree that human flourishing (i.e. the emergence of virtues such as heroism) is only possible in a world that looks something like this. It could be objected that heroism just isn’t worth it. As nice as virtues may be, the price is just too high. What do we make of that?
What price is too high?
In the introductory overview for these objection articles (linked to above) I mentioned the interesting position God’s critic is in when they claim that God is morally at fault for making this world. I will re-iterate it here, briefly. In order to say that God did something wrong there is a long list of underlying assumptions behind that claim. First, the person making the claim knows the moral code at least as well as God, or possibly better. This is the only way that the person could claim that God made a moral error. Second, the person making the claim has all the relevant data in order to judge such a moral claim. And I do mean ALL the relevant data. The person needs to know everything good and bad that has ever happened throughout all of space-time history, as well as knowing all the causal effects between all the good and the bad, as well as everything that will one day happen as a direct or indirect result of all the good and bad that we see in this world. Just to be clear, that knowledge would also have to include the afterlife.
Most people are not going to hang their hat on the claim that they know God made a mistake, but rather that it seems likely that God made a mistake given what we know. It’s a lousy world and God (we suppose) should have done better.
But that raises so many other questions. What, exactly, is the price? What did we get for the price? How do we weigh the value of a full and rich life of, say, 80 years against the horror of fighting cancer for the last year or so? Are we going to claim that 80 years of human flourishing is outweighed by a single year of suffering? Some people say so. Some people claim that any single instance of suffering experienced by any single human throughout the entire history of the cosmos is enough to make this world morally repulsive. In other words that which is bad disproves God but that which is good does not prove him. Heads I win, tails you lose.
Others might accept a more balanced approach; some level of hardship and suffering may be permissible, but what humanity presently endures is well beyond that. And others, like myself, who see that hardship is the only means to character building, appreciate the bitter-sweet value of suffering and can understand, in broad strokes only, why God would allow his creation to endure what we endure. By analogy, a luxury car with a steep price tag will be met with various responses. Some people will agree that the price tag is appropriate to the car whether they can afford it or not. Others might say it is a little overpriced, or perhaps “it must be on sale.” Still others, usually for principled reasons, might declare, “I wouldn’t take that car if they gave it to me for free!” Agreeing on the value of a car is a simple task that humanity cannot reach consensus on; how much more difficult has it proven for us to agree on the value of heroism. There is one who knows the value of heroism better than we possibly could but it is his valuation we are presently questioning so his vote does not count.
This objection raises other questions. What constitutes bad and good? This may seem obvious on the face of it, but when you consider it more closely it is not always apparent. For instance, murdering somebody would be bad and saving somebody’s life would be good – we can agree on that much – but what about the person who is neither murdered nor needs saving? When a person gets up in the morning, goes about their business that day relatively free from restriction and immanent life-threatening danger, then goes to bed at night in anticipation of a peaceful sleep, does that count as a good day? Nobody saved that person’s life, which would have been a good thing, but surely life itself (going about one’s business) is itself a good thing, even if that life was not saved from injury or death. Or, is that just “normal life” and it is neither good nor bad? It seems to me that it should be defined as good precisely because it is that kind of life that we are trying to preserve when we say it is bad to kill and good to save. It has inherent value that is worth preserving to the best of our abilities. But if that is the case then it seems trivially obvious, on the face of it, that the world has vastly more good than bad because there are far more people who live relatively trouble-free lives on any given day than those in dire straits.
Countless other questions are raised and all deserve serious consideration before we could confidently claim that the price is too high; heroism just is not worth it. Furthermore, one would have to demonstrate that the objection is not merely “I wouldn’t pay that price” because clearly there are a lot of things I would never pay for but somebody else would. I would never spend my money on a luxury car but a lot of other people would. On the flip side, I would like to one day spend my money on a small homebuilt airplane but most other people would never think to spend their money on that. “To each his own” hardly carries any real weight in this conversation because we are trying to make a judgment call that would apply to humanity as a whole. Rather, the objection needs to come in the form “the price is unfair.” In other words, the price is not wrong “for me” but wrong “for everybody,” including God. The objection must be of an objective nature, not a subjective nature. It must be a fact that this world is immoral, not merely an opinion.
This objection is packed full of so many questions that one cannot seriously address it without first having a long and detailed conversation with whoever is making the objection in order to understand the grounds of their objection. I cannot imagine any form that the objection would take that meets the criteria of objectivity that I outlined in the last paragraph, but there are a lot of creative people out there.
How much is lost?
There is another side to this that I do not think the critics have sufficiently reflected upon and that is the question of how the law of unintended consequences may apply here. Some people might think it’s as simple as getting rid of all the bad stuff so we can enjoy the good stuff.
But what if a lot more was at stake than just that? Imagine a world, for instance, where no person could ever go hungry because we did not need to work for our food. Perhaps we survived without food. Perhaps food floated effortlessly from the heavens, equally distributed over the face of the planet. Perhaps we lived by photosynthesis or something like that; use your imagination. Sounds great, what’s the catch? Well, if there is no need to eat then we have just eliminated the entire food industry. That may not sound catastrophic on the face of it (they could find other jobs, right?), but let’s rewind the tape of history. The history of civilization tended to center around food. The agricultural industry played a significant role in the advent of civilization. Per Wikipedia, “All civilizations have depended on agriculture for subsistence.” That does not merely mean that individual people need to eat, but that civilization itself – the growth of human enterprise – requires agricultural activity in order to survive. There is a lengthy discussion under the section entitled “Characteristics” of exactly how foundational the role of food is, not only with respect to human survival, but the emergence and growth of civilizations.
Because of the need for food, animals were domesticated. No need for food = no need for domesticated animals. The domestication of animals was a second major step on the road to civilization and industry. Indeed, the initial advances in technology were often associated, either directly or indirectly, with the need for humans to feed themselves. As technology began to develop, and as we found new ways to feed ourselves, humanity created cities, we wrote languages, we developed nations and states, we eventually learned medicine, science, waged wars, cured diseases, predicted weather and sent a man to the moon.
It would be impossible to say for certain how history would have unfolded if we never had the need to feed ourselves, but the research I have done suggests that agriculture and the domestication of animals played an absolutely pivotal role in the emergence of anything resembling civilization. If we could make the simple change of getting rid of the need to feed ourselves we would certainly eliminate all the starving children in Africa, but it seems very plausible that we would also eliminate much of what we cherish about civilization. Is it worth the price of all the great advances in civilization to eliminate hunger? I can see some reasons to say “yes” and some reasons to say “no.” There is something inherently valuable and excellent about science, art, philosophy, architecture, medicine, engineering (ok, I’m biased), literature and all the other great accomplishments of humanity that must be included in whatever equation we come up with to solve the world’s ills. Getting rid of all that, it seems to me, is no minor side-effect; take it or leave it.
Here is another example, what if we eliminated war? This sounds like a perfect idea with no negative consequences, but let us once again consider what else we might lose as a result. Some of the greatest advances in technology have come about in times of war, or have been developed (initially) for military purposes even in times of peace. I’m a bit of an airplane enthusiast and it has always amazed me that at the beginning of World War Two many air forces in the world still had at least a few wooden biplanes in their fleets. By the end of the war we had developed the first jet fighters and guided missiles. Shortly after the war we broke the sound barrier. These advances in technology led to substantial benefits for the civilian population by way of jet powered airliners, advances in navigation technology and the like. Indeed, during the cold war countless major technological advances were made to military technology that eventually made their way down to civilian use, bettering our lives. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) were initially created and operated by the American military. GPS provides countless benefits to your average civilian for peaceful purposes such as guiding industrial machinery to helping you find your way in a new city through your mobile device. Indeed, GPS is used for many other life-enhancing purposes that you and I are probably not aware of.
Countless other examples of civilian benefits from war could be provided, especially extending much further back into the recesses of human history, but these should be sufficient to illustrate that the elimination of war would result in other losses that may not be immediately apparent. From my own humble opinion I think getting rid of war would be well worth the loss of any technological gains we have enjoyed as a result of war. My point was not to defend war, but to illustrate the much broader consequences of making these kinds of wholesale and far-reaching changes. In the case of war it would seem easily justifiable to eliminate it. For other horrors we face, eliminating it is not so easily justified when we consider the baby that would be thrown out with the bath water. Simply saying, “God should get rid of ___” should never be accepted as a good idea without sufficient consideration of what other unexpected losses we might experience.
Before we confidently declare that the “price is too high” for this or that negative feature of the reality we find ourselves in, we need to consider whether that negative feature we wish to get rid of makes other positive features that we enjoy even possible in the first place. This careful analysis is very difficult to find from God’s critics.
Heroism isn’t all that great, anyway
My deeper suspicion, though, is that many people just don’t understand the value of heroism, virtue and the “good life” (not to be confused with the hedonistic life as many do). Those who object to the state of this world, knowing that heroism would be lost in their “perfect world,” must consider the absence of human flourishing to be an acceptable price to pay. Getting rid of all the heroes is worth it. In fact, losing any opportunity for heroism is worth the price.
I suspect that people who wish this world lacked opportunities for heroism have either not yet been faced with the opportunity to develop their own heroic natures or they have not taken advantage of the opportunity when it was presented. If you have ever volunteered in a soup kitchen then you probably instinctively know the inherent value of serving others; service that would never be required in a world without hunger. If you have ever given large sums of money to somebody in need (or preferably a registered charity!) knowing that you could have spent it on a new flat screen TV then you probably instinctively know the inherent value of sacrificing your own comfort and entertainment for the betterment of others facing exceptional difficulty. If you have ever visited with an elderly person just so they have something to do during the day, when you could have used that time to get caught up on Facebook or watch funny YouTube videos of cute animals, then you probably know the inherent value of thinking of others before yourself.
Or, of course, the vocational heroes that I mentioned in the original article – soldiers, police, firemen, paramedics, doctors and many more – they probably generally have a very good understanding of the deep soul-level fulfillment that heroism entails. The cancer victim who stands tall and joyously lives the rest of their shortened life to the fullest is a picture of heroic beauty that could never be intellectually explained to those who do not instinctively grasp it. To prefer a world without any of that, just for the sake of avoiding suffering, is to reveal a little bit about the status of one’s own heroic nature. Yes we should absolutely dream of, and fight for, a world with less suffering – indeed we would be psychotic not to long for that – but we also instinctively understand the magnificence of rising to the occasion, of facing the horror and tackling it. When we understand what would be lost – that we would all be reduced to couch-surfing blobs of pleasure-craving flesh – surely most of us can instinctively realize that there is something inherently better about our imperfect world filled with suffering heroes if that is the only logical alternative.
If you don’t get that, I cannot explain it. Maybe try volunteering at a soup kitchen if you seriously want to understand. I am reminded of a quote from the book Handbook of Christian Apologetics as the authors describe an argument for the existence of God. (page 81)
The Argument from Aesthetic Experience
- There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
- Therefore there must be a God.
You either see this one or you don’t.
That’s it. That’s the end of their entire argument and its exploration and defense. A single sentence. When I first read it I was bothered by it. No logical exposition? No further analysis and deflection of criticism? At first that annoyed my analytical mind, but I came to understand that this is one of those issues in life that is a foundation of logic, not something arrived at via logic. Sometimes the truth of an idea is either grasped or it is not and when it is not then there is no further logical analysis that will make it any clearer.
The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is beautiful. You either get that or you do not. Heroism, similarly, is of great moral value. Striving for the peak of our human potential is the imperative of every soul on earth. The journey of conquest through the jungles of our own fears and frailties in order to emerge on the other side, bruised and battered, but still substantially better people, is a journey worth taking. Pain and suffering, for the most part, are prices worth paying to become the people we were intended to be. We may wrestle with philosophical implications of the extent and degree of what is horrible with our world, but the prospect of dismissing it altogether is the domain of those who wish to embrace a sub-human existence. It is a proposition put forth by those who yearn for the life of a sea sponge instead of the life of a knight in shining armor, slaying the dragon and saving the damsel from imminent danger. Or the tale of a valiant soldier on the front lines of battle against an evil empire, seizing his buddy’s arm and gasping with his dying breath, “Tell my wife I love her!” You were made for greatness – a costly, painful greatness – you ought to rise to the occasion; seize the day!
You either see this one or you don’t.