Is There a "Problem of Goodness"?

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

"The problem of evil" has long been a thorn in the side of Judaism and Christianity. It's a simple argument:

  • Judaism and Christianity say that God is infinitely good and infinitely powerful.
  • If God is infinitely good, then He wants the world to be free of evil.
  • If God is infinitely powerful, then He can make the world free of evil.
  • But the world is not free of evil.
  • Therefore, an infinitely good and infinitely powerful God does not exist.

People have been arguing about the problem of evil for over 2,000 years. An early version appears in the Bible's Book of Job.

The bottom line is that if you believe in God, then you can find a way to explain the existence of evil. If you don't believe in God, then you think you've already got the explanation.

But what about "the problem of goodness?"

Philosopher Jonathan Garner points out that the problem of goodness is a mirror image of the problem of evil. It casts doubt on the existence of an evil God:

"The alleged ‘Problem of Good’ refers to the fact that if a good God doesn’t exist, then why is there so much pleasure, beauty, and good-will in the world? And aren’t all the good things in the world evidence that an evil god doesn’t exist?

I do think that the existence of pleasure and experience of beauty is indeed evidence against an evil god. I also think that the existence of pleasure and beauty could be some evidence for God’s existence, but we must tread carefully here."

"Tread carefully" is good advice.

One error it's easy to make is to think that goodness and evil are qualities like size or shape. Such qualities are aspects of the objects that have them. On that view, a good thing would have goodness in it and an evil thing would have evil. That was part of what G.E. Moore argued in Principia Ethica, ultimately without success.

A more defensible view is that goodness and evil are relational properties. They depend on how things affect the welfare of living beings. We apply the label "good" to things and events that help us enjoy life, achieve our goals, and fulfill our potential. We apply the label "evil" to things and events that have the opposite effect.

On that view, the mere existence of living, conscious beings that have a specific nature would logically require the existence of good and evil:

  • Living, conscious beings must act to achieve goals, even if only getting food to eat.
  • A specific nature means they would have certain needs, strengths, and weaknesses.
  • A thing or event that helped them satisfy their needs would be good, relative to them.
  • A thing or event that frustrated their needs or actively harmed them would be evil, relative to them.

It seems to me that if any universe contains living, conscious beings who must act to sustain their existence, then good and evil must also exist.

That applies whether or not God exists, and whether God is good, evil, or indifferent.

Even an infinitely good God, if He wanted to create a universe that had conscious, living beings, could not avoid the existence of evil.

That amounts to rejecting premise 3 of the problem of evil's argument. Either:

  • God might be infinitely powerful, but even infinite power is not unlimited in every direction. Some laws of logic are so fundamental that not even God can violate them; or
  • God really can do anything at all, but since our minds operate by the laws of logic, we can't understand it if He does. As a result, we shouldn't expect it to make sense to us. The philosopher Maimonides held something like that view in his Guide for the Perplexed.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it "intriguing and vital for living."