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UCLA Hume Mackie and the Problem of Evil Discussion

UCLA Hume Mackie and the Problem of Evil Discussion

Question Description

I’m working on a philosophy exercise and need an explanation to help me study.

1- FIRST DISCUSSION. Question : State whether you think the free will defense survives Mackie’s criticism of the free will defense, explaining your reason why or why not.

Discussion Board: Hume, Mackie, and the Problem of Evil

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Earlier, we discussed the most popular and intuitive argument for thinking there is a god: the design argument. That argument appealed to our ordinary observations of the intricacy and orderliness of the universe as evidence of a divine Designer. The present argument is the “evil twin” of the design argument: the problem of evil. It’s the most popular and intuitive argument for thinking there is no god. Like the design argument, it appeals to our ordinary observations, but in this case, the observations are of disorder of various sorts – in particular, evils.

There are two broad kinds of evil the argument appeals to as evidence of the non-existence of a god: moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is “person-on-person evil” – evil committed by persons against other persons (or by a person against themselves). Moral evils run the gamut from such horrendous wickedness as genocide, slavery, torture, murder, and rape to the more mundane occurrences of “small” lies and petty theft. By contrast, natural evils are bad things that are caused by impersonal forces, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, plagues, the law of predation (i.e., the fact that the only way for carnivores to stay alive is to kill and eat other conscious creatures), diseases, depression, etc.

The basic idea is then that the world is full of moral and natural evil, but a god who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good wouldn’t allow such evil; therefore, there is no god – or at least, no god like that. The argument can stated more carefully as follows:

1. If an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good god exists, then evil does not exist.

2. It’s not the case that evil does not exist.


3. Therefore, it’s not the case that an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good god exists.

The argument is valid (be sure you can demonstrate this via symbolic logic); so, the only way to rationally resist the conclusion is to show that at least one of the premises is false or otherwise unjustified. Well, why are we supposed to accept the premises?

The support for (1) goes back to at least Epicurus (Hume quotes Epicurus in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion): “Is he [God] willing but unable to prevent evil? Then he is impotent. Is he unwilling but able? Then he is malevolent. Is he both willing and able? Whence then is evil?” The logic of the reasoning here can be unpacked and stated more rigorously:

1.1 If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, then God is able to prevent evil.

1.2 If God is perfectly good, then God is willing to prevent evil.

1.3 If God is both able and willing to prevent evil, then evil does not exist.


1.4 Therefore, if God is all-knowing, all powerful, and perfectly good, then evil does not exist.

Premise 2 is supported by observation of and testimony about the evil in the world: we observe, and hear news of, the moral evils of genocide, slavery, torture, murder, rape, kidnappings, etc., and of the natural evils of hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, famine, drought, diseases, depression, etc.


Virtually everyone accepts premise 2 (viz., that evil — i.e., suffering caused by people and by nature) exists. Only the most radical skeptic would deny it. It all comes down, then, to premise 1. To undercut the premise, it would require showing that all the moral and natural evil in the world is necessary to achieve a greater good.

Now here we must be careful. Humans are excused for allowing evil because of ignorance, or because of limitations of power. However, there are no limits to God’s knowledge and power. He’s not even constrained by the laws of nature (since he is supposed to have created them, and can suspend them to perform miracles if he so wishes). The standards are much stricter for God than for humans, then: For God to allow evil, it must be absolutely impossible for any being — even God — to get the goods he wants without also allowing for the possibility of evil. Therefore, answering the problem of evil requires showing that for every evil in the world, there is a greater good, such that (i) the good outweighs the evil, and (ii) it’s logically impossible to get the good without allowing for the evil. In other words, answering the problem of evil would require showing that every evil is outweighed by a greater good, and no matter how God could’ve designed the world (different creatures, different laws of nature, different history, etc.), he couldn’t have gotten the greater goods without allowing evil.

This is the problem of evil as it is discussed in our readings by David Hume, J.L. Mackie, and Richard Swinburne. Hume and Mackie defend the argument, and Swinburne critiques it. Swinburne argues for a version of the free will defense. According to the free will defense, free will is the great good that God can’t create without the possibility of evil. That is, there is no possible world God could’ve created that contains free creatures that never do evil. However, Mackie is famous for arguing that the free will defense doesn’t work, on that grounds that if people are really free, then there are possible worlds — i.e., ways the world could be or could’ve been — where free people always freely do right. After all, if there aren’t, then that means it’s *impossible* for people to freely do right, in which case they aren’t morally free after all. But since an all-powerful, all-knowing God can do anything that’s possible — i.e., he can create any possible world — and there are possible worlds in which free people always freely do right, then God (with his foreknowledge) knows how to create such worlds (For example, God knows what each possible person he can create would freely do in every possible circumstance. Given this knowledge, he can providentially order history so that people are always in the circumstances in which they would freely choose the morally right thing to do). Therefore (argues Mackie), it was within God’s power to create a world with the great good of free will, and yet without evil, in which case the free will defense fails to deflect the problem of evil. Call this Mackie’s criticism of the free will defense.

2- SECOND DISCUSSION. Question : (ii) Explain/define at least one aspect of either signifcant freedom, significant responsibility, or useful life as Swinburne defines them, and at least one way in which this feature makes it unlikely that God can’t prevent creatures with such a feature from doing evil. (If lots of other students pick one particular feature, pick another).

(iii) Explain why you think Swinburne is/isn’t right that worlds with creatures like this are better than any world without them.

Discussion Board: Swinburne on Why God Allows Evil

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In our previous discussion, we saw that Mackie believes the free will defense against the problem of evil fails, on the grounds that God could’ve actualized one of the many possible worlds at which all free creatures always happen to freely choose to do what is morally right. However, as you’ve now read, Swinburne replies that while this may or may not be true, God can’t actualize the most valuable worlds of this sort. For such worlds contain creatures that have what he dubs significant freedom, significant responsibility, and useful lives. Given how he defines these three terms, it’s supposed to follow that God cannot guarantee that beings of this sort will always freely do what is right, and thus that Mackie’s criticism of the free will defense fails.

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