Ethics and the Problem of Evil

Ethics and the Problem of Evil

Ethics and the Problem of Evil

Ethics and the Problem of Evil


The problem of evil has been an extremely active area of study in the philosophy of religion for many years. Until now, most sources have focused on logical, metaphysical, and epistemological issues, leaving moral questions as open territory. James P. Sterba and the contributors to this volume focus on the yet untapped resources of ethical theory. These essays consider topics such as Kantian moral philosophy, Thomistic virtue theory, and the Pauline Principle--the doctrine of double effect, and God's actions in permitting evil. These new reflections shift from assessing the world's particular and particularly horrendous evils to discussion of how ethical theory undergirds the evaluation of the problem of evil. With the resources of ethical theory firmly in hand, this volume provides lively insight into this ageless philosophical issue.


In recent years, discussion of the problem of evil has been advanced by using resources of contemporary metaphysics and epistemology such as Alvin Plantinga’s application of modal logic to logical problem of evil and William Rowe and Stephen Wykstra’s application of probabilistic epistemology to the evidential problem of evil. the results have been impressive. What is a bit surprising, however, is that philosophers currently working on the problem of evil have yet to avail themselves of relevant resources from ethical theory that could similarly advance the discussion of the problem.

For example, there is no discussion of the doctrine of double effect, or whether the ends justify the means, or how to resolve hypothetical trolley cases that have become the grist for moral philosophers ever since they were introduced by Judith Thompson and Philippa Foot. Even though cognitive psychologists now regularly employ hypothetical trolley cases to determine what parts of the brain are involved in making ethical judgments, philosophers of religion have yet to recognize the relevance of such cases to the problem of evil.

What is particularly surprising, given that most of the defenders of theism in this debate are self-identified Christian philosophers, is that the central underlying element in the doctrine of double effect, what has been called the Pauline principle—never do evil that good may come of it—has been virtually ignored by contemporary philosophers of religion despite its relevance to the problem of evil.

Thus, while the principle has been a mainstay of natural law ethics at least since the time of Aquinas (notice, for example, the fundamental role it plays in the natural law ethics of John Finnis), contemporary philosophers of religion have simply ignored it when evaluating the goods and evils that are at stake with regard to the argument from evil. Rather, they have focused on the total amount of good or evil in the world or on particularly horrendous evils and whether those evils can be compensated for.

The Pauline Principle

Now it is true that the Pauline principle has been rejected as an absolute principle. This is because there clearly are exceptions to it. Surely doing evil that good may come of it is justified when the resulting evil or harm is . . .

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