This article presents an assessment of the argument developed by the character Ivan in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov [Part II, Book V], maintaining that one must reject God – not because God does not exist, but because God is immoral. The essay presents a logical analysis showing that Ivan’s argument is valid but that its soundness remains indeterminate. The essay also, however, presents phenomenological reasons for thinking that we must, except at the cost of our moral integrity, suspect Ivan to be right.
The Moral Imperative to Rebel Against God
One may safely affirm that all popular theology has a kind of appetite for absurdity and contradiction. . . . while their gloomy apprehensions make them ascribe to Him measures of conduct which in human creatures would be blamed, they must still affect to praise and admire that conduct in the object of their devotional addresses. Thus it may safely be affirmed that the popular religions are really, in the conception of their more vulgar votaries, a species of daemonism.
David Hume, The Natural History of Religion
Let us begin with a little experiment. One might call it a thought experiment, since it will take place strictly within the bounds of our own minds. One might instead describe the experiment as phenomenological, since it is meant to offer us a kind of lived-understanding of the topic we’re about to address, a kind of insight that might not be easily available through philosophical argument, verbal description, or poetic trope. In order to conduct this experiment, you will need to obtain a timepiece of some sort and collect yourself in a quiet place. . . . Ready? . . . OK.
I want you to imagine that you are one of the sons of Susan Smith, the woman who murdered both her young children one night a few years ago by rolling her car, with the two boys still strapped into their “safety” belts, into John D. Long lake near their home in Union, South Carolina. No one knows exactly what happened inside that car as it sank into the cold, dark waters of that lake, but let’s assume that, at least immediately after the car reached the water, the children were awake.
We know that drowning is not an instantaneous death, and I imagine a child can hold his breath for perhaps a minute, maybe two. I imagine the children must have gagged and choked and coughed and consciously suffered as the water surrounded them and entered their lungs. Let’s imagine, then, that exactly two minutes elapsed from the instant Susan Smith stepped out of her car to the instant her children’s consciousnesses flickered out and their bodies began to take on the temperature of lake water. OK, get your clocks ready. Sit back and imagine what those children must have experienced. Imagine every one of your five senses in operation. Imagine their terror, their pain, their panic, their choking to death. (British readers may, alternatively, wish to imagine themselves to be one of the sixteen five-year-old children in the moments before Thomas Hamilton murdered them in the Dunblane Primary School on Wednesday, March 20, 1996.) Imagine the feel and the sound of the water as it comes pouring in, hissing, splashing, spraying. Imagine the cacophony of tiny voices crying out for their mother, screaming in fear. (Really try to hear them.) Imagine their arms flailing around vainly, straining against the restraints in an effort to free themselves. Imagine the horror they experience as they realise their mother is not there. Perhaps the older boy is even able to free himself enough to turn around and see her standing impassively at the lakeside as the car slips into the darkness. Imagine the water covering you. Imagine the end.
OK, finished? What was your experience like? For my own part, I must say that those were among the two longest minutes I have ever endured. I almost found it impossible to complete them. As the father of two sons, one about the age of Smith’s oldest, I found the experience particularly difficult. Among the feelings I confront are the horror of suffering and death as well as the terrible, terrible sadness that gripped the people of the United States when the truth of the event became public, the sensation that brought many to open sobbing as they considered what had happened. I also find an overpowering sense of confusion, a sense that this must all be impossible, that it couldn’t have really happened. There is a desire to hang my head, to let it swing slowly back and forth and allow the question to tumble and tumble out: Why? Why? Why?
If you are like me, however, there also is something else, something that might go by the name of indignation, anger, or even resentment – a deep, crystalline, teeth-clenching fury welling up inside you. If you look closely at this sensation you will see, however, that at its core it is not simply focused upon Susan Smith. It is an emotion whose object is nothing less than the universe and existence as a whole. This sensation carries with it a desire to shake one’s fist at the heavens, to lash out at the world, to defy and rebel against the stupid, brutal, and arbitrary existence to which we human beings are subject. It is an indignation shot through with moral outrage, indeed with disgust. It is often and easily followed by nausea, by being repelled by and acutely sick with the world. It is a curious emotion, and I believe it is a rather common one. It is also an emotion I believe to be philosophically significant for it seems to reveal the very terms of our existence to be morally repugnant.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) recognises the significance and the revelatory powers of this emotion, too. Indeed, it is something of this staggering moral outrage that animates Dostoevsky’s character, Ivan Karamazov, in The Brothers Karamazov (1880) to turn himself squarely against God. Yet, curiously, while the root of Ivan’s rebellion is, I think, lodged in the sort of phenomenological experience I have just described, it is nevertheless also expressed through argument, and as such is open to rational assessment. Analysing the argument may, therefore, help us to better grasp the philosophical content of that emotion. Let’s look more closely, then, at the argument Ivan develops and consider to what extent it holds water.
Ivan’s argument may be recast in this manner:
- If any being is aware of some evil, is able to stop or prevent that evil, and does not stop or prevent that evil, then that being is morally reprobate. [Moral Principle.]
- The suffering and death of children are evil. [Moral Fact.]
- God is aware of the suffering and death of children. [Theological Fact.]
- God is able to stop and/or prevent the suffering and death of children. [Theological Fact.]
- God does not stop and/or prevent the suffering and death of children. [Empirical Fact.]
Conclusion: God is morally reprobate.
The Lifeguard analogy: The argument might also be cast in the form of an analogy. Accordingly, God may be understood to be similar to a lifeguard who sees a drowning child and, although perfectly capable of saving the unfortunate waif, does nothing and lets her drown. Perhaps we should also point out that it is in fact God’s child (we are, after all, supposed to be God’s children), and GOD has brought the child to this lakeside, a lake (like the child) of God’s own creation. The lake is on God’s own property (the universe) and lies in a place where God knows children will come and drown. Indeed, matters are still worse: God actually (through the act of creation) throws the child into the lake (the world).
This is a disturbing line of reasoning, for it leads us full circle to a rather unsavoury conclusion. What this analogy (and therefore Ivan’s argument) points to is, in short, no less than the conclusion that God is at least as morally deficient (and perhaps morally inferior) as Susan Smith. That is to say, God is guilty of very much the same sort of act that Susan Smith is, and perhaps a whole lot more.
These are powerful arguments, and the litany of children’s suffering Ivan Karamazov marshals to illustrate his claims renders them all the more powerful (particularly Premise 2). Like the examples I have set out, Dostoevsky looks no farther than the newspaper for material from which to draw his examples. He deploys actual accounts of the murder and abuse of children to bring home to the reader in very concrete terms the gut-wrenching horror and profound resistance human beings feel to such events.
But do we really have any good reason for feeling this way, for finding these events abhorrent, for blaming God? Can arguments that lead to such conclusions possibly be persuasive or sound? Formally speaking, Ivan’s non-analogical argument I have lain out comprises a series of what logicians call modus ponens proofs, and this is a valid form of reasoning. We have, therefore, no reason to doubt the argument’s validity. The truth of its premises, however, is a different matter. Let’s examine, then, these premises and reflect upon the ways in which they might be thought of as accurate or erroneous:
To begin with, it is important to notice that Ivan does not mean to establish that God does not exist; he accepts God’s existence as a fact. This is curious aspect of Ivan’s position, since it is often the case that the experience of great evil or suffering destroys people’s faith in the very existence of God. In Ivan’s case, however, what we are concerned with is the manner of human comportment toward the deity, not the question of whether or not the deity actually exists. Premises 3 through 5 tell us something about the nature of that deity, so we should turn to them first.
Premise 3: Premise 3, for instance, tells us that “God is aware of the suffering and death of children.” Well, assuming that God exists, is this true? The question here is one of God’s sentience and knowledge. The orthodox strains of the Judaic-Christian-Islamic (JCI) tradition hold either (a) that God is omniscient or at least (b) that God is sufficiently aware of earthly events to know of the suffering and death of unfortunate children. In either case, we can be certain that God knows a sufficient amount to render premise 3 true.
Of course, it is perfectly possible that God – assuming God exists – is ignorant of such things, and maintaining as much would relieve God of moral condemnation. (Aristotelians, for example, maintain that God is unaware of and unconcerned with things beyond itself.) Rendering God as ignorant of the suffering of the world is, therefore, logically possible. It would probably be a rather undesirable position for most theists to take, however, since it would entail revising some of the central most dogmas of Western religion. (In sum, if we regard this premise as false, we must abandon the JCI tradition.)
Premise 4: Premise 4 tells us that “God is able to stop and/or prevent the suffering and death of children.” This is a question about God’s power. First off, keep in mind that what concerns us here is the question of whether or not God is able to stop and/or prevent such suffering and death, not whether or not God should do so. Among the most important doctrines of the JCI tradition is the proposition that God created the world. Much of the JCI tradition holds that this creation was non-necessary. That is to say that the being of the world is, metaphysically speaking, contingent being: it need not have been created; it could have possibly been otherwise; its creation was in some sense gratuitous, or perhaps a gift. If this is so, God certainly could have prevented the death and suffering of children, at least by creating neither them nor this world in the first place.
The Necessity of the World: On the other hand, perhaps it was necessary that God created the world – i.e. that it is impossible that God not have done so. (This is the tack philosophers such as Leibniz and Spinoza take.) In this case, preventing at least the suffering of children (and perhaps also their death) would entail God’s intervention into the already-created universe – assuming doing so is possible. Clearly the JCI tradition maintains that God is at least powerful enough to intervene in such a fashion, should God will to do so. But again, perhaps that tradition is wrong in this. Perhaps God is so very limited that sometimes God can successfully intervene but sometimes not. Perhaps God never can intervene. Perhaps the effects of sin or the capacities of some evil being (Satan) are too powerful for God to overcome them.
Many people point to God’s respect for our free will as a reason for God’s not intervening. The question, however, is not whether or not God should intervene and override free will but whether or not God can do so. My own sense is that it would be heterodox to hold that God cannot override free will, but perhaps (heterodox or not) it is simply true that God cannot do so. Perhaps the implications of free will (assuming such a thing exists and makes sense) are too complex and too pervasive for God to undermine them. I don’t know. In any case, it does seem clear that undermining the truth of this premise by asserting God’s limitation would entail a substantial revision of the dogmas of the JCI tradition. The truth of such a subversive assertion is therefore logically possible but probably heretical. As with Premise 3, we can maintain the falsehood of this premise only at the cost of sacrificing religious orthodoxy. (In sum, P4 may be considered false, but only if the JCI tradition is abandoned.)
Premise 5: The truth of this premise seems obvious, at least if one grants credence to the evidence of our senses. Clearly children do suffer indescribable horrors, and clearly children perish. I have sometimes speculated that perhaps at the moment evil besets them God furtively whisks unfortunate children safely away, leaving only a deceptively horrible show for the senses of those who remain behind. In the case of the actual death of children this seems possible, but unless we regard their statements as false, the testimony of survivors of abuse and disaster militates against maintaining such a fantasy in these cases. (In sum, P5 is most probably not false.)
Premise 2: Premise 2 presents us with a much more difficult case. Are the suffering and death of children actually evil? Well, why might they not be? Let’s consider a number of alternatives.
First Argument Against Premise 2 (The Skeptical Challenge): I myself would argue that because it results in quite probable annihilation, almost certainly suffering, and the certain (even if temporary) loss of ourselves to our loved ones, to those who depend upon us, and to our worldly projects, death qualifies as an evil, or at least as something the inflicting of which is morally bad. Others, however, might offer the counter-argument that because we cannot know whether the condition of death is preferable to that of life, we have insufficient knowledge to make such an axiological determination. Socrates makes this claim. Indeed, if such a challenger is right, we have insufficient information to make a moral determination about anything. The operating principle here, I take it, is the skeptical proposition that absolute or irreproachable knowledge is a necessary condition for evaluation, and we always lack that sort of knowledge. If, therefore, the challenger is right, we are unjustified in maintaining that the suffering and death of children are truly evil. Correlatively, we have insufficient information to condemn Susan Smith, or the aristocrat who set his hounds upon the child, or the Nazi doctors who conducted murderous experiments upon children in concentration camps. We simply don’t know enough to say whether or not what they did was wrong.
From the viewpoint of rationalistic ethics, I must say that I agree with the challenger. That is to say, I agree that ultimately reasons must come to an end, and reason will ultimately be unable to justify such moral assertions. (As Hume tells us, reason’s role in ethical deliberation is principally one of clarification, not evaluation.) But remember that Ivan’s argument rests in the end not upon demonstrable reasons but upon the evidence of phenomenological reflection and sensibility. If that sort of reflection, inspection, interrogation, interpretation, insight, and description has any legitimacy (and it may not), then my evaluation of such events may be sustained. After all, isn’t the demand for perfect knowledge about anything rather inhuman and amoral – a demand, unfortunately, which is characteristic of rationalistic philosophy’s frequent attempt to flee the human. Because the skeptical challenge fails to resist or eliminate evil that in fact can be resisted or eliminated, isn’t it actually an immoral position?
Second Argument Against Premise 2 (The Illusory Challenge): Another way of approaching this question may be to deny that there truly is anything evil. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science movement, held such a position. Her claim was basically that evil and, in fact, suffering are illusory, i.e. not real. If, according to Eddy, one simply gets right with God, one will come to see that this is true, and one will simultaneously no longer experience such things. One may well, in fact, never experience evil things at all. Philosophers such as Plato, Plotinus, Proclus, and Augustine held similar if less facile positions. The gesture is to assert that only what is good has being; what we call evil are simply degenerate or inferior or misunderstood instances of good things. In any case, the upshot is that if evil has no being, then evil doesn’t exist.
Third Argument Against Premise 2 (The Evil = Sin Challenge): Still another strategy in refusing to call the suffering and death of children evil is simply to define evil in such a way that suffering and death just doesn’t count among the referents of the term. Certain forms of what is called “divine command” theory may be thought of as examples here. According to such views, what is evil is simply and exclusively sin or disobedience to God’s commands. It is not a sin to suffer. It is not a sin to die. Therefore, neither death nor suffering are evil. Now, most certainly the perpetrators of acts such as the murder and rape of children have committed evil acts. Their committing such acts places those people in violation of God’s law. But it is important to see that on this account it is the perpetrator, not the victim, who is in fact made worse off by the event; for it is the perpetrator, not the victim, whose immortal soul has been placed in jeopardy. (A similar argument was actually deployed by 17th century Puritans and Quakers to argue that slavery was wrong not because it harmed the slaves but because it harmed the slavers.) So long as an assault does not lead the victim to sin, the victim remains unscathed in the only truly important sense of that word, the sense that refers to the condition of his or her immortal soul. According to this view, then, we should be very concerned about Susan Smith (she is in danger of damnation) but not very concerned about her children, since in all likelihood they were never truly injured by their murder and are now in heaven.
Fourth Argument Against Premise 2 (The Nihilistic Challenge): One last way of undermining the truth of Premise 2 I might mention is simply to deny that anything at all is in any meaningful sense either good or evil. We might call this the nihilistic argument. According to this view, “good” and “evil” are terms whose application is without any real meaning. The world simply is the way it is. Effects necessarily and regularly follow causes in orderly, uninterruptible sequences. No one, not even God, is truly responsible for anything since there is no free will and everything must deterministically happen just as it happens. When we call something “evil” our utterance has no more literal meaning than does the exclamation, “Ow!”, when we say it upon stubbing our toes. (The positivists held a position much like this.) The killing of a child, accordingly, is in reality neither good nor evil; and no one is morally responsible. It is simply something that happens. Our reactions to such events are not judgements and have utterly no cognitive significance. Reasoning about them is, therefore, meaningless.
Ivan’s Reply to Arguments Against Premise 2: I take it that Ivan’s reply to these strategies would be to regard them as empty sophistries. Here is what Ivan actually has to say about the attempt to deny the existence of evil by maintaining that all events, whether we call them good or evil, are simply the necessary effects of causal chains: “all that is just Euclidean gibberish, and being aware of that fact I cannot agree to live by it!” I imagine him rejoining the arguments I’ve described against Premise 2 by saying: “These are positions human beings can parrot but cannot truly live. To the extent that people do try to live in accordance with the implications of these claims, they will become monstrous and self-deceptive fools, people living inauthentically, if you will. In other words,” Ivan might say, “there are ‘truths of existence‘ in relation to which we can live in denial or acknowledgement. Such truths are truths we must live, like it or not. Other truths, call them ‘truths of dogma, are different. We can merely talk about them, affirming or denying them, without any real effect upon our lives. Metaphysical and epistemological sophistry, however, will not yield us the truths of existence. To confront the concrete suffering of children is to confront evil. That such suffering is in fact evil is a truth of human existence. Any attempt to deny as much is to maintain an empty, insincere, and pretentious falsehood; it is abdicate one’s humanity.”
What do you think? Is Ivan right, or do you agree with those who challenge him? Before you decide, however, perhaps we should turn to Premise 1, the most important premise of the argument.
Premise 1: The moral principle upon which the entire argument turns, presents us with the most difficult proposition of the argument for assessment. At first glance, the principle may seem sound enough; but upon a little reflection we may come to think it in need of qualification. Here’s what I mean: Although it may be basically correct to claim that the unwillingness to stop or prevent evil is generally wrong, isn’t it true that sometimes special circumstances present grounds for suspending this rule? Aren’t there exceptions to nearly every moral rule, and isn’t Ivan, in failing to recognise this, guilty of what logicians call the fallacy of accident – i.e., of failing to take into account reasonable exceptions to rules? Perhaps, then, our principle should instead read something like this:
1. (If any being is aware of some evil, is able to stop or prevent that evil, and does not stop or prevent that evil, then that being is morally reprobate) UNLESS _____________________, in which case that being is not morally reprobate but is in fact acting permissibly, even properly.
Unless what? What would properly fill in the blank and render this statement true? Well, consider this first alternative formulation: a case where not stopping or not preventing the evil in question (1a) accomplishes some greater good or (1b) prevents some greater evil.
Regarding alternative (1a): Isn’t it better that there at least be some world, warts and all, rather than no world whatsoever? Isn’t something better than nothing? Isn’t it better that there exists God plus the world rather than God alone? Perhaps this world is, as Leibniz and Voltaire’s Pangloss tell us, the best of all possible worlds, despite its apparent flaws; and perhaps in the grand scheme of things it is better that the world exist than not exist. Isn’t it true that there is much great and good about the world? If the world had not been made wouldn’t we have had to forego all those tremendous goods as well all the world’s evils? Paying taxes (or sacrificing present consumption) might be thought of as an evil, but sustaining that relatively trivial evil makes possible greater goods, for example Social Security (or sending one’s children to university). Indeed, since its end is good, perhaps taxation is itself also good. Similarly, one could argue that the suffering of children (as well as of adults) is indeed truly an evil, but such evil is a necessary price to pay for the achievement of either (i) a future paradise or (ii) the existence and maintenance of the present universe which as a whole is a great (perhaps the greatest) good. Perhaps such (apparent) evils, then, under the right circumstance, are actually goods.
Regarding (1b): Having one’s teeth drilled or undergoing surgery or chemotherapy might be called real evil, but it prevents a greater evil, for the consequence of foregoing that drilling would be even worse pain. Punishing one’s child (or a criminal) might be called a real evil, but it not only serves a good end by punishing wrongdoing; such punishment also prevents future, greater evils by providing the child (or the criminal) with a disincentive to developing certain vicious habits. Perhaps, then, while the suffering of children may be an evil, it may prevent even greater evils. Perhaps facing such horror keeps the rest of us from becoming cold and callous. But what would Ivan say?
In what I take to be Ivan’s response to the First Alternative Premise 1 we greet the provocative and radical core of his argument. In response to the claim that a qualifying circumstance may render the toleration of evil permissible (or in any way mitigate its moral repugnance), Ivan advances the claim that no greater good can possibly be worth such a price.
I cannot agree that it makes everything right…I have no wish to be part of their eternal harmony. It’s not worth one single tear of the martyred little girl who beat her breast with her tiny fist, shedding her innocent tears and praying to ‘sweet Jesus’ to rescue her…all the truth in the world is not worth the price… No, I want no part of any harmony; I don’t want it, out of love of mankind. I prefer to remain with my unavenged suffering and my unappeased anger – even if I happen to be wrong. I feel, moreover, that such harmony is rather overpriced. We cannot afford to pay so much for a ticket. And do I hasten to return the ticket I’ve been sent. If I’m honest, it is my duty to return it as long as possible before the show. And that’s just what I’m trying to do… It isn’t that I reject God; I am simply returning Him most respectfully the ticket that would entitle me to a seat.
Whether the heavenly payoff is eternal life, or the knowledge of who is naughty and nice, or the establishment of the New Jerusalem, or the end of history, Ivan is clear: No payoff, no advantage whatsoever can offset or transform the evil of the suffering and death of innocent children.
Notice this, as well: Ivan is clear that in his regard it would be morally preferable that no world at all had been created than a world be created where innocent children suffer. Even if existence itself is the payoff, Ivan would refuse and rebel; he would simply rather not exist than exist in a world where such things are permitted to take place. Even for stakes as high as his very existence and his eternal life, it is for him simply not worth the price. If instruction is the payoff, Ivan would rather remain ignorant. If freedom is the payoff, Ivan would rather remain unfree. Indeed, it is not simply Ivan’s preference to refuse these qualifying circumstances. Ivan’s claim is much, much stronger. It is, in fact, our duty and the duty of every moral being to refuse them. The moral propriety of such things should not be for sale.
We ought, therefore, to rewrite our first principle in the following way in order to make Ivan’s assessment of the magnitude of the evil and the imperative to condemn it more explicit.
- If any being is aware of an evil of the magnitude manifest in the suffering and death of children, is able to stop or prevent that evil, and does not stop or prevent that evil, then that being is morally reprobate, and it is our duty to judge that evil and that being accordingly.
The Magician-King Analogy: Another way of characterising Ivan’s reply to the option of “qualifying circumstances” is in the form of an analogy. Suppose a very powerful magician-king (King Jeffrey Dahmer or King Andrei Chikatilo) asked you to present to him your one and only, most-beloved child. [Known popularly as “Citizen X” or the “Shelter Belt Killer,” the Russian serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo, was convicted of more murders than anyone else in recorded history – 52 – though others have claimed a greater number. The murders took place during the period 1982-1990. Nearly all the victims were children, male and female. Chikatilo usually tortured, sodomized, and mutilated his victims, apparently while they were still alive. He often targeted his victims’ genitalia; in a few cases he gouged out their eyes. Jeffrey Dahmer was convicted of murdering 15 people, some of them very young men. Many he cannibalised.] (Consider Isaac & Abraham.) Suppose he told you that after you turned the child over to him he was going to sodomise the child and then roast her alive – slowly and tortuously. I’m sure you would reject this offer and consider it a hideous abomination. But suppose this mighty king also told you that if you turned the child over to him for this purpose, all the world and all of the dead would be granted eternal life. Indeed, suppose he told you that even the child in question would be resurrected, restored to her original splendour, and would in fact forgive the king for his having molested, tortured, and murdered her. (The child would also forgive you, the parent, for turning her over to the malevolent king.) Suppose the king told you that your turning over the child to him for such a sacrifice would produce eternal world peace and prosperity, that disease and poverty and misery of every kind would be annihilated, that indeed paradise would arrive. What would you do then? (Don’t Christians believe that God, in fact, did such a thing with his only son?) Of course, we know what Ivan would do. Ivan would still resist and would regard the magician-king as a monster. Would the king-magician (i.e., God), however, really be a monster? (Recall the Carthaginians.) For myself, I side with Ivan; and I would observe how strange it seems that people don’t find the JCI God monstrous. How strange it is that the JCI faithful hold their God to a much different – and in my view lower – moral standard than they hold the rest of us.
Criticism of Ivan’s Replies to the First Argument, (1a) & (1b): Ivan’s reply, however, is not entirely watertight. The vulnerability of Ivan’s position may be seen in the question of what grounds Ivan can have for his replies. On what basis can one possibly decide whether or not turning over the child to the abusive king-magician in exchange for all that he has promised is the right or wrong thing to do? On what grounds can one possibly decide whether or not the existence of goods like these outweighs the existence of the evils I’ve described?
Ivan’s opposition to the proposition that human suffering is justified by the terrific end it serves amounts to something like the claim that God is guilty of breaking the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s moral injunction against using persons (who are ends in themselves) as simple means to other ends. But perhaps in this special case–i.e. the case of eternal life and the establishment of paradise–it actually is permissible to treat a person merely as a means rather than as an end. Perhaps payoffs of this magnitude are indeed worth it. Perhaps in at least this one, unique case the ends do in fact justify the means. Perhaps the suffering and death of one (or many) relatively insignificant child (children) is actually a terribly small price to pay for something so great. Perhaps the child’s body and life are rightfully used as, in Ivan’s words, “manure to nurture the harmony that will appear in some remote future to be enjoyed by unknown creatures.” Indeed, with regard to Kant, since the child’s sacrifice actually makes possible the present and eternal freedom of the entire world, her own included, perhaps her sacrifice can be understood not only as consistent with her autonomy but as a necessary condition for that autonomy.
But perhaps not. In any case, making a decision of such importance would seem to call for reasons, and Ivan offers none. Indeed, at this juncture Ivan falls back on obstinate, irrational wilfulness. Perhaps more generously, Ivan falls back on himself: “I prefer to remain in my unavenged suffering and my unappeased anger–even if I happen to be wrong.” Is this position of any philosophical significance, or does it simply amount to being bullheaded? Perhaps reconsidering Ivan’s position from another point of view will yield a different result.
The trouble with faith: Another dimension of the case we might take into consideration concerning the king-magician’s proposition is that we have precious little assurance that he will keep his word. Indeed, if we redraw the analogy so that it more closely resembles our own lives, we ought also to say that we have very little reason to believe that such a person (God) even exists. We know of this king-magician only through a few hazy and distant reports. We have heard and read about his magical powers through various media and through the testimony of others. Perhaps we have even experienced some strange events in our own lives that we would like to attribute to the action of such a king-magician (though clearly nothing we’ve experienced is of comparable magnificence to what he is said to have promised in this case). Our situation, then, becomes all the more problematic insofar as we are asked to place our rather blind faith in this monarch. We are asked to accept certain, brutal suffering for the sake of merely possible resurrection, redemption, and reconciliation.
Couching the proposal in this form tends initially, I think, to strengthen Ivan’s position. Further reflection, however, leads us to see that one’s willingness to agree to the king-magician’s proposal depends upon a variety of rather idiosyncratic factors, none of which are subject to rational determination.
Among them stands the factor of risk aversion. Perhaps one recognises the risks involved but is so compelled by the nature of the potential reward that one find’s the sacrifice worth the risk. Perhaps one also recognises that suffering and death are to befall the child anyway. In this case an assessment of the outcomes would seem to argue in favour of opting for the chance offered by the king-magician. (Pascal maintains a similar line.)
Attending to the uncertainty we have in the king’s trustworthiness, therefore, actually does little to help Ivan’s cause. His stridency in rejecting any qualifying circumstance that might excuse God for not intervening so as to stop or prevent the suffering and death of children seems ungrounded and even misplaced.
But can humans actually be expected to trade present certainties for far off and vague possibilities?
There are two other possible alternatives Ivan addresses, two other possible candidates that may serve to fill in the blank in our modified rendering of Premise 1. In the interest of time and space I will simply mention them here along with what I take to be Ivan’s replies.
The Second Alternative Premise 1 may be understood to be that case where a being ought to act so as to stop or prevent evil, unless the subject of the evil deserves it. Accordingly, if the children involved deserve their suffering, then God is not morally bound to protect to them. Much of the Christian tradition has held that children are born into original sin. Augustine, for example, regards the crying and demanding behaviour of infants as sinful, and he regards the disobedient, unruly behaviour of children as corrupt. From this point of view, then, God remains exempt from moral censure because children are themselves reprobate. Ivan of course deeply disagrees with this position, but again we must wonder if he has good reason for doing so. Do we really have good reason for holding children to be innocent? Much of this hinges upon how we understand the nature of their behaviour and the import of original sin.
A Third Alternative Premise 1 is to say that God is exempt from moral censure because, although God neither stops nor prevents the suffering of innocents, he does provide a means of cleansing or abolishing that evil through the powers of redemption and forgiveness – or at least a means of rendering to evil what it deserves. Somehow, it is held, God is able to nullify evil. The lamb of God, for example, is said to “negate” or “take away” the sins of the world (qui tollis peccata mundi). God is also held to serve evil its ultimate justice through casting the unredeemed into perdition. Though children are harmed, and that harm is evil, at some later time the evil is either nullified or punished.
You will not be surprised to find that Ivan also rejects this alternative. “What good would it do to send the monsters to hell,” he asks, “after they have finished inflicting their suffering on children? How can their being in hell put things right?” And if damnation is ineffectual, so are atonement and forgiveness:
that tear will remain not atoned for. And those tears must be atoned for; otherwise there can be no harmony. But what could atone for those tears? How is it possible to atone for them? . . . And finally, I don’t really want to see the mother of the little boy embrace the man who set the hounds on him to tear him apart. She won’t be able to forgive him. If she wants to, she may forgive him for herself, for having caused her, the mother, infinite suffering. But she has no right to forgive him for her child being torn to pieces. She may not forgive him, even if the child chooses to forgive him himself.
My sense of things is that for Ivan the problem with redemption and damnation is that they don’t change the fact that evil happens in the first place. It is the occurrence itself to which he morally objects, and to the extent that redemption and damnation don’t alter the past and in fact (as the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre would say) sustain it in its facticity, they are irrelevant. But does Ivan properly understand the workings of sin and redemption?
Premise 1 clearly involves us in a very complex network of issues, many of which may be unresolvable. It seems to me, however, that we have achieved something and that can conclude this much: the truth of Premise 1 is difficult to determine, and Ivan has failed to demonstrate its falsehood.
In conclusion: Well, having picked away at Ivan’s argument for some time now, what, you may be asking, is my own assessment of it? My view is that from a logical point of view the soundness of the argument, as it stands, remains and must remain indeterminate. By this I mean that while the argument is surely valid, it is impossible to determine the truth of its premises. I suspect that if God exists – despite the testimony of those who claim to have or to have had a direct link-up – God and God’s workings must always remain profoundly inscrutable to humanity. To the extent that the irrevocably mysterious character of things divine prohibits us from making a judgement about God’s moral standing, one may be tempted to take what I should like to call the “Job option” and grant God the benefit of the doubt.
As the story goes, evil things befell the good man, Job, and the reasons for those things happening remained elusive to him; but because Job had faith, he held fast to his allegiance to God and to the conviction that although we don’t know them, God must have good reasons for permitting such things to happen. It seems to me that the Job option is a real option for human life, but strictly speaking the mysterious character of the divine does not lead to the conclusion that we ought to grant God the benefit of the doubt. It simply implies that we’re in no position to make a judgment.
Philosophically I tend toward this view. My willingness to affirm this position, however, is qualified by my acknowledgement of the existential and phenomenological dimensions of Ivan’s examples (as well as the examples of Susan Smith and Thomas Hamilton). Ivan’s argument in conjunction with the actual experience (direct or imaginary) of confronting the suffering and wrongful death of children renders his position much more compelling to me than my strictly logical analysis of it would indicate.
It is my own sense that fully embracing the Job option entails a partial abdication of our humanity, of our moral integrity, if you will. While an acknowledgement of the ignorance we must endure with regard to the divine makes it difficult for us to render any fully determinate judgement concerning whether God is good or evil (and whether or not we should rebel against God), an acknowledgement of the profound and gratuitous horror of the suffering of children renders it in my view very, very difficult morally and existentially to accept the JCI characterisation of God. In short, while the Judaic-Christian-Islamic view of God cannot be determinately (that is logically or empirically) condemned, Ivan’s argument powerfully supports the conclusion that such a God is nevertheless morally repugnant. It is, in short, logically possible that the Judaic-Christian-Islamic God is indeed a good God – but by nearly everything else we know and believe, and by all the moral standards to which we hold one another, it sure as hell seems that such a God is as horrible and evil as Susan Smith.