Ethics and the Problem of Evil

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James P. Sterba
Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , February
     182 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ethics and the Problem of Evil is comprised of seven essays, plus introductory and concluding remarks by editor James Sterba that register brief objections to the arguments of each essay. The essays collected here stem from two conferences where participants were asked to reflect on the notion that there “are yet untapped resources in ethical theory for affecting a more adequate solution to the problem of evil” (4). The essays have been revised in light of the authors’ comments on each other’s essays, and while they do make efforts to acknowledge each other in dialogue, the essays can be treated largely as self-contained pieces. Sterba situates the entries in the context of the contemporary analytic philosophy of religion, noting that the volume departs from much of this work in using ethical theory rather than logic and epistemology as the primary resource. According to Sterba, the emphasis on logic and epistemology has done more to clarify the problem of evil than to solve it, and the hope of this volume is that appeals to ethics will be more productive. The essays are sufficiently technical and nuanced that they resist easy summary, so I will only address three representative entries in detail.

There is a tendency in literature on the problem of evil to treat “evil” as a relatively static component of Christian thought: the evil Augustine came to terms with at the end of the 4th century is the same evil examined by Aquinas in the 13th century, Kant in the 18th century, and so on. Marilyn McCord Adams’s entry in this volume is a welcome departure, as she addresses specific, historicized evils in her insistence that any thinking about the problem of evil take into account the worst evils of which human beings are capable. Adams acknowledges that she writes as “a theologian, not an ethical theorist” (25), and the goal of her essay is to identify features of ethical theories requiring attention if they are to be “theologically adequate” (12). A theologically adequate ethical theory, she says, will have to face up to the worst that human beings can suffer or do through “firsthand empathetic engagement” (13) and come to terms with systemic evils as opposed to merely individual evil. It will also be realistic about the limitations of human agency while recognizing human and divine agencies as in partnership rather than competition; it will clarify whether we think God is above reproach or whether God’s actions are morally justified; and it will understand the human-God relationship as governed by an ethic of personal relationship, albeit one that is asymmetrical. Adams’s arguments will not be convincing to non-theists, but she is admirably honest about not intending to persuade such persons. The aim of the essay, after all, is a specification of criteria necessary for ethical theory to satisfy theological presuppositions.

John Hare’s contribution addresses the question of theodicy through a close reading of Kant's 1791 essay "On the Miscarriage of All Philosophical Trials in Theodicy." He likens the strategy of "Miscarriage" to that employed in the first Critique and in Religion whereby Kant appears to deny the necessity of a theistic position, only to conclude by affirming it. As he has done in other works, Hare makes a compelling case that Kant’s philosophy of religion, despite surface appearances, is not simply reducible to moral philosophy, and he uses “Miscarriage” to develop an account of what a “Kantian transcendental theodicy” might look like and how it might be viable even for those who reject Kant’s distinction between this world and a noumenal realm. Hare endorses Kant’s conclusion that theodicy should not aspire to theoretical knowledge about God’s ways but rather should acknowledge human ignorance and operate “within the sphere of faith” (28). Hare applies Kant’s rejection of philosophical theodicy to the story of Job, arguing that we cannot look for a theodicy which justifies the particular evils experienced by Job, but that we can say that the reach of evil is limited by our ability to will the moral good and accomplish it “reasonably often.” It is a “transcendental theodicy” because these limits, requiring postulates about God and the afterlife, are necessary presuppositions for the very possibility of rational morality.

Stephen Maitzen examines the implications of believing that God is a perfectly good being despite allowing suffering. For Maitzen, it won’t do to simply deny that God has moral obligations to humans, as Adams and others do, and so his argument proceeds according to the presumption that God is morally perfect (and perfect in power and knowledge), and that such a God can have moral obligations. The question then becomes: How can God be morally perfect in never violating his obligations when we know there is so much suffering in the world? Wouldn’t God be obliged to stop at least some of it? Maitzen rejects the familiar replies that God does not intervene so that humans are free to prevent evils themselves, or that God allows evils in order to produce certain human virtues like courage and compassion. Moral freedom and the virtues are only positive because there is suffering in the world, so moral freedom cannot be truly positive because it is parasitic on the negativity of suffering. Therefore, Maitzen’s conclusion, in contrast to the other contributions to this volume, is atheistic: it does not make sense to speak of a perfect God in light of so much preventable suffering. Since only a perfect God is worthy of belief and worship, there is no good reason to believe in God.

These essays—and others—will be of primary interest to scholars working in analytic philosophy of religion from a self-consciously Christian standpoint, but its audience is not limited to such persons. The book offers illustrative examples of how scholars in philosophy of religion understand their aims and how they go about making their arguments. For those more interested in critical appraisals of scholarship on religion, it offers “data” for assessing the presuppositions and biases which go into mainstream work in philosophy of religion. 

Unfortunately, there is no engagement with work from outside the analytic tradition, and little methodological reflection in relation to other possible orientations. The authors do not, for instance, address important continental approaches to the problem of evil, nor is there any engagement with Jewish theologians whose reflections on evil, especially in a post-WWII context, may have important theoretical and experiential insights to offer these discussions.

Still, the effort to turn the attention of analytic philosophy of religion on the problem of evil away from logic and epistemology and towards advances in ethical theory is a welcome one, and hopefully more work will follow this volume’s lead.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ryan Donovan is a doctoral candidate in Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
August 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James P. Sterba is professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He is author of many books, including From Rationality to Equality.



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