A Slightly Delayed Return to the Distinction between Natural and Moral Evil

This is a response to Ed’s piece several weeks ago (term finished and I’m looking back at past blog articles in my spare time!) on the distinction between natural and moral evil.

I think it’s right that we need to be cautious in accepting this distinction, in particular if we think that this makes the problem of moral evil relatively easy to solve. There are still some important underlying issues about the connection between freedom and the capacity for evil. The argument that God had to create human beings with the ability to do evil in order that they could love God freely at least needs explication and justification in connection with the further claim that God is maximally free yet can do no evil. However, I think that there is a distinction between evil that results directly from human sin and that which does not, and it is therefore not unreasonable to treat the two distinctively. Approaches to the problem of evil are likely to be more effective though if they consider the two as interconnected within an account of fallen creation.

Firstly, on the potential connection between the capacity for error and freedom-

I like the point that evil is the result of a capacity for error; it highlights the way in which evil itself is always a mistake and deviation from the intention of creation. In itself, it is not a part of God’s Salvific plan, as Ed puts it. The contention though, shared by many Christians, is that this capacity for error is at least very closely connected to freedom (perhaps necessary for human freedom). Saying that evil occurs because of our capacity raises the question of why human beings have this capacity, and this is where freedom looks like it could be relevant, since freedom seems like the sort of good quality that God might create creatures to have.

Still, we would need then to have an account of freedom on which this tie to capacity for error is plausible. As Ed points out, a key issue for Christians when developing an account of human freedom is the traditional claim that God is maximally free, yet is not able to commit any act of moral wrongdoing. He does not have a capacity for error, so it looks problematic to affirm that morally significant freedom necessarily involves having the capacity for error. The classic Christian position, as seen in someone like Augustine, highlights that the ability to sin is no ability at all, but merely a liability and privation. On this account though freedom is greater if there is no risk of error, no chance of doing anything wrong. However, this really pushes the question of why human beings have this capacity for error, and generally the Christian tradition has tried to maintain that Adam need not have sinned, so that God is not held responsible. One way of dealing with the issue is to suggest that humans were given freewill, but not to the same extent that God or even the blessed angels enjoy freewill. Full freewill is to always will what is right, but humans are still fortunate to be graced with the lesser form of freedom that involves the capacity to do good and evil. This leaves us though with the question of why, given that this lower level of freedom does so much damage in the world.

It might be affirmed that there are significant differences between human and divine freedom, or that more broadly created beings require a capacity to do otherwise in order to be really free. Anselm holds this sort of view on the basis that while God has His will and choices from Himself, creatures have their capacity for will and their dispositions from God. If they only had one set of morally good dispositions, then they would just be determined by them; it is crucial to the Freewill of a creature that they be caught between conflicting sets of dispositions or overall desires. This does not apply to God though, since his decisions are always His own, since nothing could determine Him or bestow upon Him any faculty or disposition.

It looks to me like a good idea to at least hold that what is involved in divine freedom is something quite different from human freedom, and that generally it is to do with human beings being the sort of creatures that they are (being both created and free) that they are liable to fall in to error. God is of a superior type of being (or is in a higher way), which does not involve this liability to fall. In creating, God is not merely restricted to the types of creatures that He does create though, but could have created any possible creatures  (we can all argue about how broad this is, but God at least has plenty of options). So the point will be more effective if it applies to created freedom generally rather than specifically human (Anselm’s version is directed at angelic freedom). It is unique to the independent creator of everything to be able to always fully will the good without this being determined by anything else, and therefore removing freedom. It could be that in order for any created being to be free in a morally significant way, they need to be liable to making immoral choices ie have a capacity for moral error. And it could be that being free in a morally significant way is something that is crucial to God’s Salvific plan.

I do have some doubts about the plausibility of this strategy of linking the capacity for error to freedom. However, I struggle to see how else to avoid making God’s creation of human beings look like a really strange decision for a God who is fully love. The responsibility of human beings seems like the most plausible explanation for how things could go this badly wrong under the broadly Christian account of the universe.

On the allegedly dubious distinction –

Natural evil is the sort of evil that we see arising in the world, but for which human beings are at least not obviously responsible. Generally, defenders against the problem of evil often want to make the move to find a human related explanation for this evil in terms of it either being somehow beneficial to  our development of morally significant freedom or being the indirect result of human error. Of course, many are willing to leave a degree of mystery as to why God does allow such apparently undeserved suffering in the world. This does not mean not believing that God does have a reason though, for we can hopefully be confident that God is not just ambivalent about suffering but actively wills to minimise it.  This seems to be involved in being really loving. So we would assume that God has overriding reasons for creating the world that He does.

Ultimately, we must allow that God as creator at least allows every instance of evil regardless of whether or not it is also caused directly by a human action. However, there is still a distinction between the types of evil that are under discussion, in so far as we think that there is something distinctive about the way in which human beings cause suffering. And it seems that there is plenty of motivation on a Christian view to say that there really is: human evil is not like a tiger hunting. The tiger is following the order of nature instinctively, and is not blamed. Yet human beings are not free from blame just because they have a capacity for error and are thereby liable to make wrong choices. As it is, fallen human beings do make wrong choices, and these have become almost natural to them and (if we endorse an account of universal original sin) they never avoid them. Yet the committing of evil acts is not natural in the sense that it is part of God’s direct intention for creation, though humans having the capacity to choose wrongly may be. Moral evil is sin, and it follows from fallen nature, but not from nature itself. The responsibility of human beings specifically for the evil they cause is explicable if we think that humans have freewill in a morally significant sense not shared by other creatures.

However, one could endorse the idea that the suffering and violence we see in nature is also the result of some human or angelic fall, and embrace the idea that the world we see is one that is fallen. This might help provide a fuller account of suffering including instances of natural evil. Even if this is accepted though, I think it is still useful to distinguish evil for which a conscious, free agent is directly responsible, from evil where this is not the case. Only the former are instances of actual sin, even if the others are also traceable to a condition of fallen creation

I’m not sure what Ed thinks we can do to dissolve the problem of evil, as it stands as a challenge to the notion that this world could be the creation of a loving God (or what approaches should be taken by others, given the worries over the distinction). If we don’t connect evil to human freedom, I’m not sure where else broadly we can even think there could be a reason for God creating a world so full of suffering (regardless of whether we think we could specify that reason). I’d like to know his thoughts, and those of others.


2 thoughts on “A Slightly Delayed Return to the Distinction between Natural and Moral Evil

  1. Just a quick reply (will say something more in depth over the next couple of days) to say this is a really good post. Really good…


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