Epicurus’s old questions are still unanswered: Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? then whence evil?
Thus in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion the great British philosopher David Hume deftly stated the chief difficulty with the Christian belief in “God, the Father almighty,” namely, the problem of evil. Evil’s existence, it seems, must be a strike either against God’s omnipotence or against his fatherly benevolence. You cannot have it both ways. The idea of a God who is both our Father in some meaningful sense and also almightily presiding over a world as tragic, horrific, and cruel as ours simply strains credulity.
In the centuries since Hume penned those words it has become clearer and clearer that it ain’t that simple. The force of Hume’s argument depends upon a hidden premise: God could not have had a sufficiently good reason for permitting evil’s existence. Supplying the warrant for that hidden premise has proven an all but impossible task–I mean, how could one know a thing like that?–and without it Hume’s argument doesn’t amount to much qua deductive argument.
Nevertheless, as sheer sentiment it packs a punch, as anyone who’s had his or her heart broken by this world can attest. We can’t help thinking that things really are not as they ought to be.
But surely that’s an odd thing to think, isn’t it?
Maybe not. It’s really hard to avoid thinking things like “One ought not commit infanticide” or “Child pornography is bad.” It seems an awful lot like we inhabit a value-laden universe wherein the language of good and evil, virtue and vice, ought and ought not forces itself upon us sooner or later. We live in a physical universe, too, of course, but to bracket out value language and describe our lives in purely physical terms inevitably rings hollow. We live in a socio-economic universe, too, of course, but to bracket out value language and describe our world in purely sociological or economic terms is to miss large swathes of reality altogether. We may disagree on how exactly to use this moral language—we may disagree on whether this or that is good or bad—but to avoid value language entirely is to inhabit a fantasy land.
But how are we to make sense of such value language? We can’t just take our ought and ought not, good and bad language for granted. What sort of world do we need to be living in in order for moral and evaluative categories to make sense, to have any traction in reality? This is an important question which we (post-)moderns rarely ask ourselves, and the result is a lot of sloppy thinking, question begging, and slippery sloping when it comes to ethics. The same David Hume also honed in on this problem in his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740):
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning…when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d, and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.
Thus Hume pried open a nagging problem of philosophy with which any serious ethical theory must come to terms. Just how this “imperceptible” unjustified slip from is and isn’t language into ought and oughtn’t language—a slip which G.E. Moore called “the naturalistic fallacy”—is to be avoided is difficult to say. What is at issue is the question of how descriptive premises can warrant prescriptive (ought or oughtn’t) or evaluative (good or bad) conclusions. Hume himself wound up taking the view that such warrants do not exist in reality and that all evaluations and prescriptions amount to no more than our personal preferences, what we like or dislike. At the end of the day reality itself is not actually value-laden at all in Hume’s view.
Avoiding either the naturalistic fallacy or Hume’s valueless universe is no easy task and the landscape of Modern philosophy is littered with failed attempts. The two most promising candidates, Kant’s categorical imperative and Pragmatism, have both gone to pieces. The former is susceptible to scads of comical counterexamples and the latter sounds good in theory but doesn’t work in practice. The fashion today is to come up with evolutionary accounts of how we got the moral instincts we have. But the peddlers of such accounts frequently seem blind to the fact that to explain the biological origin of a sentiment in no way shows that sentiment to be warranted. All the while Nietzsche is snickering in the corner.
Of course, Modern philosophy isn’t our only option here. As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre points out, Pre-Modern peoples, particularly those operating within the Aristotelian tradition, were much better positioned to make warranted evaluative and moral deductions from factual premises because they were willing to own up to the fact that all value language presupposes teleology, a set of beliefs about what the purposes or goals or ends of things are (what things are for, in other words). I can say that a watch which hasn’t lost a minute in ten years’ time is a good watch because watches are made for the purpose of keeping time. Watches ought to keep time. That’s the point of watches. In Aristotle’s language, the point or purpose or goal or end of a thing is its telos. Hence, teleology. MacIntyre summarizes:
Within the Aristotelian tradition to call x good (where x may be among other things a person or an animal or a policy or a state of affairs) is to say that it is the kind of x which someone would choose who wanted an x for the purpose for which x‘s are characteristically wanted….The presupposition of this use of ‘good’ is that every type of item which it is appropriate to call good or bad–including persons and actions–has, as a matter of fact, some given specific purpose or function. To call something good therefore is also to make a factual statement….Within this tradition moral and evaluative statements can be called true or false in precisely the way in which all other factual statements can be so called. But once the notion of essential human purposes or functions disappears from morality, it begins to appear implausible to treat moral judgments as factual statements. (After Virtue, p. 59)
Of course, it’s really hard to see how one could think of humans objectively having essential purposes or functions without thinking of humans as having been created (perhaps via evolution) or designed by Someone for some purpose. In other words, value language is teleological language and teleological language smacks of theism. Taken out of the context of classical theism, moral judgments lose the capacity to have real truth values attached to them.
I am not ready to give up on the idea that moral evaluations have real truth values—that it really is bad to commit infanticide and it really is good to care for the orphan and widow—and since it is hard to see how moral evaluations possibly could have such truth values apart from something like classical theism, I can’t help thinking that the basic Christian story makes much more sense of my experience and intuitions than a-theistic accounts of the world do.
Most historical Jesus scholars agree that Abba, “Father,” was Jesus of Nazareth’s preferred handle for YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And nearly all scholars of Christian origins agree that ancient Christians probably picked up the habit of thinking of and referring to the God of the universe as “Father” from Jesus. Though Jesus’ practice of referring to God as “Father” was uniquely his own, it was not entirely novel. He seems to have been riffing on an oft neglected thread in Israel’s Scriptures which surfaces around the stories of the exodus and of David’s royal heirs. By calling God “Father” Jesus conjures up folk-memories of the God who barges into Pharaoh’s territory to set the captives free, who makes promises and keeps them, and who demands that Israel be kind to outsiders because they themselves were outsiders once upon a time. By calling God “Father” Jesus also seems, by implication, to cast Himself as “Son of God,” a designation reserved for Israel’s rightful King (whom Israel believed to be the King of kings). Like Father like Son: this Jesus, too, went around barging into places setting people free, being kind to outsiders and demanding that we all go and do likewise.
For my part, I must confess that I am completely taken with this Jesus and with the Father of which He speaks. I can’t help thinking that, yes, this Jesus knows what the Good is. His story makes sense of the world as I know it: a world brimming with real values, a world teeming with real good and real evil, a world tangled with crisscrossing unmarked roads of oughts and ought nots. So, Epicurus’s old questions notwithstanding, I do believe in God, the Father almighty Who raised Jesus from the dead and who can set wrongs right. I don’t expect everyone to be with me on this, but I hope that at least you can see where I’m coming from.