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Evil and Explanation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Nicholas L. Sturgeon*
Cornell University
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In the first part of this paper I want to consider the relation between two familiar philosophical views that have not to my knowledge been considered in any depth together, even by philosophers who are well known for defending each separately. These views have a certain natural affinity, in that each has been attractive to philosophers of a generally naturalistic bent. Thus, since I intend to argue that there is a difficulty in reconciling them, I will be pointing out a difficulty, not, I think, in philosophical naturalism, but nevertheless in one package often accepted by naturalists. One of the views is that the problem of evil is, at the very least, a serious theoretical difficulty for theism. The other is nihilism about value, the thesis that there are no real values in the world and that statements ascribing values to things are never true. I hope it is obvious why there is at least a prima facie difficulty in combining these views: how can someone who thinks that nothing is really good or evil also think that we find in the world more evil than we would expect if theism were correct?

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1995

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1 As Harman, Gilbert did in The Nature of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press 1977) 22.Google Scholar

2 This presumably has to be Mackie's position. It also appears to be Gibbard's, Allan view inch. 6 of Wise Choices, Apt Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1990)Google Scholar, although Gibbard has indicated in conversation that his considered view would now be more complex.

3 Blackburn, SimonJust Causes,Philosophical Studies 61 (1991) 1115CrossRefGoogle Scholar, reprinted in his Essays in Quasi-Realism (New York: Oxford University Press 1993). Blackburn actually mentions three proposals, but notes that the first fails for many cases. I focus on the second (12-13).

Blackburn's third proposal, which he also endorses, “allows that there exists a moral feature, injustice, and even allows that it can itself be causally relevant“ (13, emphasis in original). There is no doubt that this position can accommodate moral explanations. But, as Blackburn immediately notes, “it will not be obvious that this position is available to the projectivist” (13)- that is, to a moral irrealist. He is right. Technical difficulties aside, there is the problem that he has argued, just three pages earlier, that it is an advantage of his irrealist position over a moral realist one, precisely that it does not postulate a moral property, such as injustice, as part of the explanation of agents’ diversely based thoughts on this topic (9-11); so it is quite puzzling that he should then cheerfully countenance introduction of that same property to explain, say, revolutionary discontent, when what is being explained will of course include thoughts of that kind. Thus, my reason for putting this proposal to one side is that it is highly doubtful - at the least, very controversial -whether it is really a proposal that an ethical irrealist can consistently make.

4 In “What Difference Does It Make Whether Moral Realism is True?” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 24 (1986) supplement, 115-41; in “Contents and Causes,“ Philosophical Studies 61 (1991) 19-37, esp. 27-30; in “Moral Disagreement and Moral Relativism,” Social Philosophy and Policy 11 (1994) 80-115; and in a critical study of Gibbard's Wise Choices, Apt Feelings in Noûs 29 (1995) 402-24.

5 Mackie, J.L.Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1977) 15Google Scholar

6 Mackie, J.L.The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982) ch. 9Google Scholar. See also his “Omnipotence and Evil,” Mind 64 (1955).

7 It might seem that there is another way Mackie could avoid the objection, by altering slightly his argument against theism. There is doubt about how he can say that the world contains evil, but of course none about how he can say that it contains no value at all, since that is the view he explicitly defends inch. 1 of Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Theists get into difficulties about evil, however, partly because they hold that the world, being the handiwork of a perfect God, is good. So Mackie seems in position just to object that they are mistaken, because nothing in or about the world is either good or bad. We might call this the ‘problem of no value’ rather than the problem of evil.

Although this suggestion provides no help in understanding what Mackie is doing in pressing (as he clearly does) the problem of evil, it does indicate how an ethical nihilist might object to theism, on the basis of a view about value, without turning to the more famous problem at all. However, Mackie's apparent reasons for not arguing in this way are interesting. He surely agrees that his value nihilism conflicts with theism in the manner indicated, but appears to think that this argument would nevertheless get the order of evidence wrong. For he says more than once (Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, 48; The Miracle of Theism, 114-18) that if (though, probably, only if) there is a God, the world might contain objective values. His argument for value nihilism is thus based on his philosophical naturalism, understood already to include atheism; and the value nihilism is thus not available as a premise from which to argue for the atheism.

8 The Miracle of Theism, 150-1

9 Ibid., 153-54. His concession also depends on the understanding that omnipotence does not include the power to do the logically impossible (150, 154).

10 Ibid., 155

11 Ibid., 173. The quoted words are actually prefaced by, “But, as I have said before.“ The reference appears to be to this earlier passage: “But it is not for me to make assumptions about this either way. Since I am charging the theist with holding incompatible beliefs, it is his conceptions of good, evil and so on that are in play here” (165). See also his reference (159) to “real, deplorable, unabsorbed evils, such as theists themselves constantly condemn.“

The remark from p. 165 contains an oddity, in that it comes well after his general admission, amply illustrated, that he is not simply accusing the theist of holding incompatible beliefs. If this is not just carelessness, the explanation may be that this characterization is meant not to apply to his entire argument in this chapter, but only to a dilemma he is pressing in that passage, in which he does argue that certain of the theist's beliefs are inconsistent, and that an inconsistency remains whatever the theist says about a certain issue of value. The quotation from p. 173 also occurs in what appears to be the statement of a similar dilemma.

So, I note, it is possible that Mackie does not mean, in any of these passages, that all of his evaluative standards are borrowed from his opponent. However, he is certainly barred from supplying these standards himself; and he offers no other suggestions about where he might get them.

12 The Miracle of Theism, 156. Emphasis in original.

13 There may appear to be an alternative suggestion at the conclusion of the paragraph. Perhaps the evaluative standards are simply different enough from those traditionally invoked to force us to see an ambiguity in the evaluative terminology, even though neither set of standards is correct. Can the Mackie of Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong really say, however, that two speakers calling God good, both with the appropriate recommendatory force but with different standards, do not agree in their evaluation of God? I do not see how to understand this view except as implying that the standards set at least rough truth-conditions for statements by speakers who accept them, so that in calling bad a God such as these speakers praise, speakers with more traditional standards speak truly. That, of course, is what I have noted that Mackie appears to say earlier in the passage. So, if I am right, this isn't after all a different suggestion, and it isn't one a value nihilist can accept.

14 Luke 15:7, quoted by Mackie, The Miracle of Theism, 159Google Scholar. The two parables are also from Luke 15. The view Mackie defends here would no doubt appeal to the prodigal's brother (Luke 15:25-32).

15 The Miracle of Theism, 159

16 Of course, any Christian might be influenced by these same thoughts, and so come to share Mackie's evaluative standards even here. More generally, Mackie will almost never be arguing from evaluations shared by no one else. But when he describes his argument as ad hominem, he takes his opponent to be “the theist“ (ibid., 159, 165, 173), and this generic target seems to be disappearing rapidly from his sights. So, here, is “the Christian.“

17 Ibid., 165-66, 168-72. He argues, about one form of freedom, that it might reasonably be valued by the agent who possesses it, but would nevertheless not have value from a divine point of view. The argument is intriguing, but I do not see how he could imagine establishing all this just from the values of his average fellow atheist, let alone those of a representative theist.

18 Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, 36-8

19 Ibid., 38-42

20 If we look beyond unadorned value nihilism to views that attempt to preserve a role for evaluative discourse, R.M. Hare's recent position may be another example: no value judgments are true, and evaluative terms represent nothing real, but, when the discourse obeys the appropriate noncognitive rules, moral disagreements, at least, are resolvable because utilitarianism is demonstrable. (Hare, R.M.Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method and Point [Oxford: Clarendon Press 1981].)CrossRefGoogle Scholar The demonstration offered is unpersuasive, but the position at least illustrates the bare possibility of thinking a form of nihilism defensible without relying on any claims about the irresolvabililty of evaluative disagreements.

21 It would be unstable because the resolvability of the disputes would invite explanation, and the obvious explanation to consider would be that the evaluative terminology refers to features that the discussants are in position to find out about. I agree with Mackie, however, that that wouldn't completely settle the question of whether there are real values; we would need in addition to think that the features referred to were really values. (For comparison, we might think that the terms of some polytheistic religion actually refer to natural forces; that would not commit us to thinking that those forces were gods.) On the other hand, I think that Mackie's story about how strange real values would have to be is quite easily countered, and that plausible naturalistic accounts of value are available. Hence my compromise: I concede the possibility of a position that was nihilist though not supported by pessimism about rational resolvability, but I think it extremely unlikely that such a view could be made plausible.

22 Nicholas Sturgeon “What Difference Does It Make Whether Moral Realism is True?” 123. Since Blackburn's “Just Causes” is a reply to this article, I assume that he is unimpressed by the criticism. I offer more criticism in “Contents and Causes,” 27-30, a continuation of the discussion with Blackburn.

23 Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, 35

24 This seems an appropriate point to address an objection that may occur to those who have read past the first chapter of Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong: an objection, not to the truth of my conclusion in the first section of this paper, but to its interest. For, the objector might contend, anyone who has read all of that book already knows that Mackie is inconsistent, and does not need to look at his version of the problem of evil to learn this. For after declaring in chapter 1 that all first-order moral judgments are false, Mackie proceeds in the later chapters to debate a great many first-order moral issues. As Gilbert Harman says, “It is almost as if he had first demonstrated that God does not exist and had then gone on to consider whether He is wise and loving” (“Is There a Single True Morality?” in Copp, David and Zimmerman, David eds., Morality, Reason and Truth [Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allenheld, 1985] 30)Google Scholar. So what is the great interest in learning that there is a similar inconsistency between chapter 1 and the evaluative theorizing in his presentation of the problem of evil?

There are two answers. (a) First, there is a tempting resolution to the latter inconsistency that has no plausibility at all when applied to the former: namely, that Mackie is arguing solely in an ad hominem fashion, by his opponent's evaluative standards. So it is interesting to see that, as I have shown in the first part of this paper, that solution fails. (b) Second, as Harman notes, another possibility is that in the latter part of the ethics book, Mackie has adopted “some sort of noncognitivist account of the judgments that are to replace the old moral judgments“ (idem.). So here is a possible solution to the apparent inconsistency within the ethics book: that Mackie is distinguishing two different readings of evaluative judgments, a strict one, reflecting what they now standardly mean, on which they are all false, and a ‘fall-back’ noncognitivist understanding with which we might replace the standard one. Could this also be a solution to the apparent inconsistency between chapter 1 of Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, and what he says in pressing the problem of evil? That will depend partly on whether a noncognitivist can construe Mackie as objecting to the same explanation that his theistic opponent is offering: my principal topic in this section of my paper.

25 Another similarity, no doubt less important, is that philosophers like me, sympathetic to realism about values, tend to reject both proposals, sometimes for similar-sounding reasons. (An exception appears to be Robert Audi, who accepts realism about values but also accepts what I call below the ‘Real Supervenience proposal’ about evaluative explanations. See his Ethical Naturalism and the Explanatory Power of Moral Concepts,” in Wagner, Steven J. and Warner, Richard eds., Naturalism: A Critical Appraisal [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press 1993] 95115.)Google Scholar

26 Blackburn, “Just Causes,” 1213Google Scholar; Sturgeon, “Contents and Causes,” 28,36 (n. 17)

27 Might we also have eliminated this realist-sounding talk of one property supervening on others, in our statement of the Real Supervenience proposal? Yes, but only by replacing it with an equally realist-sounding reference, not to the speaker's standards, but to the correct standards. For if you tell me that injustice is causing discontent, you are, on that proposal, attributing this effect to whatever nonevaluative feature fits the correct standards for injustice.

28 Here is a question that the proposal, as so far formulated, doesn't explicitly address: what are we to do when there is evaluative terminology not just in the explanans but also in the explanandum of an explanation? What are we to make of someone's saying that the reason certain children are thriving is that they have been raised with decency and humanity (taking it that ‘thriving’ may be an evaluative expression here), or of a theist's saying that God's goodness explains the goodness we notice in much of creation? I have here dealt with the latter example without needing a general answer to this question, by assuming that the theist's idea of a good God will include that God prefers what is better on all issues -so that the theist's standards on other questions automatically become incorporated in her idea of what a good God would be like. This won't work for the general case, however. I assume that the general answer has to be that we interpret by the speaker's standards throughout. (If we don't, then we get a very odd ambiguity when the speaker adds that the children's thriving explains something nonevaluative, say the relative comfort with which they deal with both their peers and adults. For here we are already committed to interpreting ‘thriving’ by the speaker's standards.)

29 This strikes me as still only an approximation, because Mackie's implicit assumption here seems to me even more realist than this. He seems to be understanding the explanation he is attacking to be determined neither by his opponent's standards nor by his own, but instead by the correct standards, whatever they are. His own standards are then relevant only because he trusts them as correct. (However, it is beyond my scope in this paper to show that Mackie is assuming so much; at a minimum, that would require ruling out other irrealist construals of his remarks that I do not consider here.)

30 Thus Charles Stevenson's remark: “My methodological conclusions center less on my conception of meaning than on my conception of agreement and disagreement” (‘Meaning: Descriptive and Emotive,’ in Facts and Values [New Haven: Yale University Press 1963]170). The argument is quite explicit in Hare, R.M.The Language of Morals (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1952) 49Google Scholar; in his Moral Thinking (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981) 69; and in Blackburn, SimonSpreading the Word (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984) 168Google Scholar. The argument does not take quite this form in Gibbard's Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, but Gibbard does conclude that noncognitivist views locate a “common element in dispute” (9) that all naturalistic accounts miss.

Blackburn's most recent position in “Just Causes” is a bit more complex but is no exception to this pattern. I now see that I was mistaken, in “Contents and Causes,” to say (25-7) that his position there is no longer noncognitivist (in his terms, projectivist) and that he is barred from relying on this argument. His position is an attenuated form of noncognitivism, but it remains noncognitivist. What seems likely to me is that it is so attenuated that he will not be able to deploy this standard argument with any plausibility, because it will be so hard for him to find cases where his theory gives a different answer about univocality, even less a more plausible answer, than does a sophisticated cognitivist theory. However, his estimate of the resources of cognitivist theories is lower than mine, so he undoubtedly sees the matter differently.

31 Since this argument is descended from Moore's open question argument, it is perhaps not surprising that it is not equally an attack on a nonnaturalist account of value. Classical intuitionists are typically understood from this perspective to solve the problem of univocality by postulating a property, simple and accessible through intuition, that both speakers can refer to despite their difference in standards; the usual noncognitivist objection to this solution is to the extravagant metaphysics and epistemology it requires.

32 Putnam, HilaryThe Meaning of ‘Meaning',Philosophical Papers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1975) II, 271.Google Scholar

33 An earlier version of this paper was presented to the Philosophy Department at the University of Michigan. I am grateful for numerous helpful comments on that occasion. I have also benefited from conversation with David Aim, Todd Blanke and Eric Hiddleston.

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