Evil and Theodicy, Part 1: Are Happiness and Virtue Linked?

I've just finished reading a very good book, Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. I'd like to devote a post or two to Neiman's book coming at her argument from a Christian vantage.

Neiman's subtitle An Alternative History of Philosophy is just that, a different way of telling the story of modern philosophy. In most Philosophy 101 classes the story of philosophy is usually told as a drama in epistemology. There are rationalists (Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza) and there are empiricists (Hume, Locke). Kant comes along and does his critical work upon both traditions. Etcetera. Alternatively, Neiman suggests that the dialogue between modern philosophers can be fruitfully seen as conversations less taken with epistemology than about the problem of evil in human existence. This is a bold move by Neiman. Most philosophers would claim that evil is a theological category. Yet Neiman persuasively makes the case (by connecting the works of Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Rousseau, Marx, and Freud to name a few) to show how modern thought, even when God is declared dead, has been wrestling with the problem of evil. Neiman even makes a nice argument showing how the work of contemporary thinkers such as John Rawls can be seen as a part of this dialogue about theodicy.

Now many of you might only have a fuzzy notion of who all those philosophers were and what they wrote about. Never fear, my posts will try to simply sketch Neiman's thesis leaving it for the interested reader to dip into her book to explore how these modern thinkers fit into the scheme.

The heart of Neiman's book is how she frames the problem of evil and theodicy in non-theological terms. For Neiman, the problem of evil has to do with the intelligibility of nature. It goes to our ability to understand and therefore trust the Cosmos. Evil stumps these attempts to make sense of the world. And making sense of the world is less about getting the answer to why it rains than about our place in the universe. Can we lean on reality, trusting it to support us? If we live a life of virtue is there any assurance from reality that I'll reap good outcomes? Will our plans to build just societies be nurtured by the Cosmos?

Or is it all just randomness and confusion?

Thus the heart of the problem of evil is a disjoint that, throughout the book, Neiman frames in different ways. It is the disjoint between:

Reality and Reason
Virtue and Happiness
Truth and Goodness
Ought and Is

The problem of evil occurs anytime we confront reality and feel "Things ought not to be this way." This feeling can be felt by both the atheist and the theist. Evil and theodicy are not uniquely theological or religious categories. Further, the problem of evil occurs when we feel that there should be clear and causal links between virtue and happiness. We feel that living a good life should, generally, produce fulfillment and flourishing. Somehow there should be links between how the world is and how it ought to be.

Consequently, a theodicy is an attempt to heal this disjoint, to show that reality can be understood by reason. That virtue is linked to happiness.

For Christians the link has always been God's Providence. God is the link between virtue and happiness, the bridge between ought and is. Believers claim that, despite appearances, what is happening to us is connected, via God's Plan, to goodness. As the bible claims in Romans 8.28: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him." Romans 8.28, deployed as a theodicy, links goodness to virtue. Further, even if God's plans are unfulfilled on earth (via human rebellion) believers know that in the Final Accounting in heaven or hell virtue and happiness are finally and fully linked.

For philosophers less interested in overtly theistic accounts the links between virtue and happiness were to be found in the rationality of the cosmos. The argument would be made that the natural and moral order were linked. Human flourishing was possible, if only we could follow the dictates of Reason. A better world awaits us if we would just fall in line with the grooves laid down by both Reason and Nature. Utopian thinking, thus, is a form of theodicy. It is a demonstration that there are links between virtue and happiness. That reality would submit to the force of reason. The difference between the theodicy of, let's say, Marx and a Romans 8.28 Christian has to do with human activity and the role of eschatology. The theodicy of Marx demands that we act, now. The theodicy of the Christian demands that we wait for the Final Judgement. Regardless, both think virtue and happiness are systematically linked.

Stepping back from history we also find that everyone is engaged with theodicy. Deep in the human psyche is an intuitive theodicy. It is called just world belief and it has been amply demonstrated in the psychological literature. Summarizing, we intuitively think that the world is just, that the hand of Providence is in play, that ought and is and virtue and happiness are indeed connected. Thus when tragedy strikes something in the human psyche seeks to link it with virtue. Might those people deserve what happened to them? Might I be being punished (by God or the Fates) for what is happening to me? Might my sins be haunting me? In short, we can see in all this how we try to bridge the divide between ought and is. Can Hurricane Katrina be blamed on anyone? Perhaps the French Quarter hedonists and homosexuals? If not, if hurricanes are just random killers, if they crash upon the just and the unjust, then is there any link between virtue and happiness? This is what evil, natural or moral, does to us. It suggests that my life of goodness and virtue can be thrown away, like a dirty rag, by God or the Cosmos. And if this is the Way Things Are, well, why not eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die?

To summarize, Neiman claims that the problem of evil haunts every soul, not just the religious. And that the more generic root of the problem of evil isn't the old conundrum of If God is so good and powerful why does He allow evil? Rather, we seek some assurance from Nature (a fool's hope?) that virtue and happiness are linked in some systematic way. If they are not, how can we go forward with our plans to live a life? How are we to raise our children if we know that goodness is disconnected with happiness? Thus, theodicy is an attempt to show us the links, to assure us that if we pursue a life of goodness Nature or God will meet us halfway and make our life a happy one.

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2 thoughts on “Evil and Theodicy, Part 1: Are Happiness and Virtue Linked?”

  1. "Thus when tragedy strikes something in the human psyche seeks to link it with virtue. Might those people deserve what happened to them? Might I be being punished (by God or the Fates) for what is happening to me? Might my sins be haunting me?"

    As I read this I thought of Haidt's book on morals and happiness that you read and commented on a year or so ago. He says that humans have a natural inclination towards reciprocity which, since we are social beings, helps us deal with one another and produce a society that benefits us all. I share with you and you share with me. This can be a strategy that has very little cost and yet great return on investment. If I have a surplus that could not be used which I could share and at a later time have the favor returned when the winds of fortune change it would be a wise and inexpensive choice to share. Also, a selfish person could be treated in an eye for an eye fashion to keep those in check who would be inclined to only take.
    Where this relates to reciprocity is that this is so ingrained into our psyche that when bad things happen to good people we use this template to explain it. I must be because they did something to deserve it. When people prosper for no apparent reason the same thinking explains this as a reward for good behavior although at times it is hard to see when and where this good behavior occurred.
    Haidt might say that this is more a matter of our psychological makeup than a struggle with the concept of theodicy.
    Any thoughts?

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