Evil and Theodicy, Part 2: Can Happinees and Virtue Be Linked?

In my last post I outlined the basic scheme of Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. Specifically, the problem of evil has to do with a disjoint. One way to frame that disjoint is the gap between virtue and happiness. We would like to think that virtue is causally and systematically associated with happiness. There are no guarantees of course, but we'd like to think that the pursuit of virtue wasn't a self-defeating task. But evil disrupts this hope. Evil appears to radically dislocate virtue and happiness. Innocent and good people often suffer horrificly while vile and hateful people flourish. Consequently, it would appear that, in the face of evil, virtue and happiness are not linked.

Given the appearance of evil many thinkers produce a theodicy, a way to show that despite appearances there are links between virtue and happiness. We might not be experiencing those links, but that is a failure. The links exist even if unrealized. That might not be much comfort, but it gives some assurance that the Cosmos is orderly and that suffering could, potentially, be overcome.

After presenting these formulations regarding evil and the goal of theodicy, Neiman goes on in Evil in Modern Thought to group thinkers into one of two camps (some thinkers can't be so grouped and these odd ducks are discussed separately in the book). The first camp of thinkers has contended that a theodicy was possible. That is, they felt reason could show the links between virtue and happiness. Some of these thinkers were theists (Leibniz) while others were not (Marx). Regardless, according to Neiman's scheme each felt that human flourishing was causally associated with human virtue.

In contrast to this first group is a group of thinkers who felt that a theodicy was impossible. The argument was that reason is impotent in the face of human suffering. Understanding the rhyme or reason of existence was impossible. These thinkers might differ on why theodicy fails, it may be due to the scope of reason or a flaw within it, but they agreed that the human experience stumps reason.

An interesting case study in this latter group is Neiman's take on the Marquis de Sade. You'll recall that the word sadism was coined to describe Sade's violent and depraved pornographic works. Interestingly, Sade considered himself to be a philosopher. His two major novels were Justine and Juliette. In these two novels Sade recounts the stories of two orphaned sisters who were separated at birth. Justine pursues a life of virtue but meets with nothing but misfortune, violence, and trauma. The subtitle of Justine is, appropriately, Good Conduct Well-Chastised. By contrast, Juliette pursues a life of vice and sadistic pleasures. And the more depraved Juliette behaves the more she flourishes, in wealth, power, body, and esteem. The subtitle of Juliette is Vice Amply Rewarded.

I've not read Sade's work, and from what Neiman describes I don't want to. I only bring up Neiman's take on Sade's novels because they make a point, albeit obscenely so, about the possibility of theodicy. Again, Neiman groups Sade with thinkers who felt no links could be drawn between virtue and happiness. The associations were not to be found. Sade's novels, violently and pornographically, were meant to show that virtue has no association with happiness.

Actually, it's a bit worse than that. For Neiman, Sade is helpful because he represents the nadir of theodicy. It's not that virtue and happiness are randomly and unpredictably associated. Rather, they go in opposite directions. And Sade follows those dark trajectories as far as one could go: The universe is antagonistic toward virtue and blesses vice.

Now I bet we've all, at some point, felt this way. Felt that the universe or God was sadistic. Actively seeking to punish goodness and innocence. I doubt we've sat in this place for long, but I know it's a common feeling. It is probably the most extreme form of lament there is.

Given all this, we can make a sketch as to the theodic options before us. I made this slide to illustrate:

This slide illustrates the tensions between the problem of evil and the aspirations of theodicy. The experience of evil moves us from left to right on the graph. It suggests that virtue and happiness are dislocated at best or inversely related at worst. Conversely, theodicy is an attempt to move us from right to left. An attempt to show that virtue can reliably produce happiness. True, these links are fragile and can be tragically reversed. But in a "normal" state of affairs the links exist. They may be like cobwebs, but still they shimmer.

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11 thoughts on “Evil and Theodicy, Part 2: Can Happinees and Virtue Be Linked?”

  1. Richard,

    Are you aware of any attempts to scientifically correlate virtue and happiness? I realize there are no good metrics here, but surely there have been people who've studied this?

  2. Hi Pecs,
    That's an interesting question. As I was writing the post I began to wonder the same thing. (When I start to write posts I don't generally know what I'm going to say or will end up saying. I thought this particular post would go a different direction than it did.)

    The problem, as you note, is the metric. Happiness is readily measured. It is virtue that is the problem. No good way to measure that (well, one that is feasible), at least not exhaustively and across chunks of the lifespan.

    Regardless, I'll make an armchair call and say there is good anecdotal evidence that virtue is positively correlated with happiness (how strong a correlation is debateable but I think the correlation is non-zero and positive).

    However, upon reflection, I don't know if that association can stand for a theodicy. That is, I think the issue is more existential than psychological. Evil is random. Thus, I might live a whole life of virtue and be happy because of it yet find myself in Auschwitz. The issue then becomes: What's the point? Is a life of virtue, with its incremental gains of happiness, worth pursuing in a world where evil can wholly wipe away all those efforts? It's less about those micro-links between happiness and virtue than the attitude the macro-level forces (e.g., hurricanes, dementia, death camps) have toward those efforts. Will the Cosmos (or God) be nurturing, indifferent, or antagonistic toward my life? Is the pursuit of virtue a sisyphusian task? That is, sure I can roll the ball up the hill, but will it stay there?

  3. I think the important issue here is psychological. Is the world a better place if humanity is virtuous? Most people would answer the question the way you would. This, by itself, makes virtue a worthwhile endeavor. Sure, there may come circumstance that erases any benefit of being virtuous, but just because bad circumstances can make you unhappy does not call into question the correlation between happiness and goodness. By the way, this is essentially my reading of Ecclesiastes. It certainly is the case that for many, virtuousness ends in disaster. Think of the rescue workers on 911, to add to your examples.

  4. Pecs,
    I'm in agreement with you. I guess I was trying to say that if the problem of evil would present a problem, past an acknowledgment of the virtue and happiness link, it would enter in as an existential issue.

    BTW, in Neiman's book she argues that what we've been discussing (that virtue is associated with happiness) is the main thesis of Rousseau's Emile.

  5. Pecs and Richard,

    Dawkins' The Selfish Gene and Shermer's The Science of Good and Evil would be examples of "attempts to scientifically correlate virtue and happiness." But only if "correlate" means "note the empirical and theoretical relationships," as opposed to constructing a philosophical defense or critique of theodicy.

    I think I'll quote Bertrand Russell on an important historical aspect of this question:

    "The close connection between virtue and knowledge is characteristic of Socrates and Plato. To some extent it exists in all Greek thought, as opposed to that of Christianity. In Christian ethics, a pure heart is essential, and is at least as likely to be found among the ignorant as...the learned. This difference...has persisted down to this day."
    (A History of Western Philosophy, p. 92)

    This is my surmise (I wish Russell had gone into the "why" here--alas, you're left with my conjecture). The Greek word for virtue, "arete," means "excellence of character," and each social role had an excellence associated with it. Consequently, what is "good" for any particular person's action can be decided by asking how a person can fulfill her or his social role with excellence: the question is empirical.

    But Russell goes on to write, "The dialectic method is suitable for some questions, and unsuitable for others." (Ibid.) Russell then points out that science is not fundamentally a matter of consistency, but of observation.

    I'll jump to the point here: To the extent that virtue is confined to determination within human social interaction, it is empirical. But with monotheism, one society's "virtues" had to be compared to another's, the context went meta, and empirical answers forever afterward can only be partial, preliminary answers.

    Christianity gives a purported final "metacritique" of human nature that it proposes as the final answer, an answer that no science can give. In my opinion, the future of Christianity depends on the cogency of its metacritique of human nature. In my opinion, no sense can be made of this question unless the ambiguity of good as a social construct (arete) and good as a pure heart (agape--I'll call it a meta-virtue) is sorted out.

    And Pecs, what's this "the important issue here is psychological" stuff? Are you getting soft? :-)

  6. Hi Tracy,
    You make an interesting point. It seems that a lot of the secular thinkers Neiman writes about who are, according to her scheme, pro-theodicy typically ground their views in the notion of social contracts. That is society can be well-ordered by reason then happiness results. But, if I see your point correctly, little is said in these accounts of the particular, of the individual life of virtue and how abstract political notions might help cultivate those virtues in people.

  7. First of all, thank you Dr. Beck for giving your take on “The Dark Knight”.I asked off line to avoid being a spoiler, but I believe “The Dark Knight” brilliantly illustrates the topic being discussed.

    As a punch line comment concerning this topic, what’s at stake is nothing less than the sanity of our souls (Christian and non-Christian).

    Throwing more gasoline into the fire, Scripture itself presents many cases involving harm to those who attempt to practice virtue as well as many bystanders (i.e. the 70,000 soldiers slain because David insisted on counting the number of his army). I‘m sure a few of those soldiers died leaving behind a wife and children. Those surviving children wouldn’t question God as to why their father had to die due to the disobedience of “a man after God’s own heart“.

    Ultimately, Isaiah 45:7 (KJV) reads “I formed the light, and create darkness, I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things“.

    The above possibility in Scripture is “the elephant in the living room” that mainstream American pulpits, Christian media, Christian bookstores, and contemporary worship/praise music won’t touch, let alone address.

    Being that justice/reward/compensation in relation to the attempted practice of virtue is not necessarily resolved in the window of earthly life, our sub-consciousness desperately demands that virtue
    be vindicated at the end of the “eternal“ day. This brings us to Soteriology issues.

    1. The “Elect” camp - Utterly disregards human virtue.

    2. The “Free-Will” camp - Presumes that virtue directly impacts the outcome of eternal happiness, or a lack of virtue to eternal despair. Virtue meaning that “ I have decided to follow Jesus”. Invalidates the virtue of the good Samaritan who bothers to help a fellow in need. Misfortune in contingent histories and bad moral
    luck are dismissed as excuses for one “not choosing virtue“.

    What about God/Christ’s happiness?
    If God/Christ has any virtue in Himself, would He be “happy” when
    the paradigms of item 1 or item 2 are completed/fulfilled?

    3. Universal Reconciliation - God/Christ’s VIRTUE resulting in the eternal happiness of all,
    including His own happiness. Removes the burden of unattainable virtue upon His creatures, but at the same time, frees His creatures to practice virtue as an expression of gratitude.
    Compensation for suffering, and retribution/correction resolves
    all open accounts, even if this doesn’t take place until after
    one’s earthly life.

    Great stuff - thank you again Dr. Beck!

  8. Richard,

    Yes. As I see it the question of--in your phrase--how "abstract political notions might help cultivate...virtues in people" is key. And Russell's view that Christianity focuses on a pure heart, I think, is correct in pointing out Christianity's contribution to the dialog: In Kant's words--and he speaks out of the Christian tradition here--a good will alone is "good without qualification." (From the opening sentence of his Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals)

    The reason is simple. If ethical or moral commitment is contingent on what is "in it" for the individual, it is the same thing as the individual having no moral or ethical commitment. That is, unless one supposes that it is always in one's best interest to toe the moral/ethical line.

    It is my surmise that religion, among other things, fills the need for that supposition.

    BTW: since Gary just brought it up, if you'd like my take on The Dark Knight, google "metaponderance" and check it out. But please be nice and don't ask any stump the chump questions in the comments.


  9. "...a resolute moral energy, no matter how inarticulate or unequipped with learning its owner may be, extorts from us a respect we should never pay were we not satisfied that the essential root of human personality lay there."

    Wm. James at his most Christian moment, as viewed by Russell's point that it is a pure heart that matters most--from a Christian point of view.

  10. Gary,
    That Isaiah 45:7 is a sticky one. My take, from what I've read, is that the OT is a mixed bag when it comes to holding to a strict monotheism. Isaiah 45:7 is one end of the pole, while in some places the Heavens seem populated with other real deities.

  11. Gary, 

    Just in case you're still around three years after writing this, I can only say, "brilliant." You have summarized what is essentially "salvation by works" (virtue and eternal happiness as presented by orthodox Christianity) in a most revealing way -- a way in which I have often viewed it but could not find such eloquent words to describe it.Thanks for such a simple, and yet beautiful, outline of the "competing" views of salvation and how they relate (or do NOT relate) to the VIRTUE of God.

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