MORALITY AND EVIL

GARETH B. MATTHEWS, PH.D.

Secular parents may feel that they have a special advantage over religious parents in not having to discuss the problem of evil with their children. That is, since they do not believe there is such a thing as a divine being who is both all good and all powerful, they do not have to try to explain to their children why terrible things sometimes happen to innocent or even good people: tsunamis that kill thousands of innocent victims, or terrible illnesses that make babies and small children suffer unbearable pain before they then die. These parents, like most all parents, may want to shield their children from news about the horrors of the world. But if the children see something heartbreaking on TV, at least they do not have the burden of explaining how a loving and all-powerful being could allow such a thing to happen.

On the other hand, religious parents may feel that they have an advantage over secular parents when it comes to moral upbringing. These parents may be upset at the moral relativism they and their children see in the movies or hear in their favorite music, but they may feel confident that they have an answer to all moral relativism: Morality, they believe, rests on the unshakable commands of God.

In fact, I shall argue, both assumed advantages are illusory. The idea that it is God’s commands that justify morality is not as much of an advantage in helping our children to become morally good people as one might think. And the idea that the problem of evil is only a problem for religious believers is mistaken. But my counsel is not a counsel of despair. It is rather that parents, whether religious or secular, should have open discussions with their children, including discussions about morality and about evil. Children need to work out their own answers to the fascinatingly difficult questions of life. With encouragement from their elders, they will do this. I begin with the problem of evil.

My grandson Julian has always loved trucks. When he was barely fifteen months old and just learning to talk, he would take my hand and lead me to one of his father’s trucks, most likely to his father’s dump truck, which was then his favorite. He would stand by the dump truck in an almost ecstatic trance, quiver all over, and pronounce, very carefully, perhaps several times, those magic words, “dump truck.”

Julian continued to like dump trucks through early childhood. But his primary allegiance shifted from dump trucks to bucket-loaders. I remember seeing him at two and a half, in the same trancelike state, literally shaking all over, as he watched the magical actions of a bucket-loader.

Julian was also, and remains so to this day, an ardent nature lover. Even at age three he could recognize a large number of bird varieties, more than many of us adults. He also knew much, much more about frogs and turtles than I have ever dreamt of knowing. He was especially passionate about frogs. While he was still two, he and his mother, my daughter, Sarah, had heard wood frogs quacking in the wetlands across the street from their house. So, in the following spring, just as Julian was turning three, Sarah took Julian and his older sister, Pearl, onto the land across the street in the hopes of hearing wood frogs again and maybe getting a look at one.

Unfortunately, a developer had recently cleared a huge tract of land adjacent to the wetlands and had filled in some of the wetlands. Julian had enjoyed watching the big trucks do this work. But now, when Julian and his sister and mother went to look for wood frogs, none could be found. Instead of the quacking sound of wood frogs, which Julian could clearly distinguish from the call of tree frogs, they heard nothing but the sound of bucket-loaders. Without thinking about what effect her words might have on Julian, Sarah blurted out, “The bucket-loaders have killed the wood frogs.”

Sarah’s remark stunned Julian. He kept repeating, “Oh my God! You’re kidding, Mama! The bucket-loaders have killed the wood frogs?” Sarah tried to console Julian, but nothing helped.

In that experience, Julian encountered the problem of evil. It is not that he wondered how it is possible that God, who is all good and all powerful, could allow evil to exist in the world. He was relatively innocent of any explicitly theological framework for thought. But he had to face the shattering realization that one preeminent good in life, a bucket-loader, could destroy another preeminent good in life, a colony of wood frogs.

Later on, in a move somewhat reminiscent of Immanuel Kant’s argument from justice for human immortality, Julian developed the conviction that mother wood frogs have babies, then die, and then later come to life again. In this way he reassured himself that his beloved wood frogs had not, after all, been completely obliterated by his equally beloved bucket-loaders. They would be born again.

Evil does come from good. This is a metaphysical problem. This is also, as it was for Julian, an existential problem. There is no particular age, or stage in life, when we have to confront the problem of evil. It may hit us when we first read David Hume in a philosophy class. It may hit us when we read the Book of Job in church or temple. It may hit us when we read about the torture of prisoners in Iraq or Guantánamo. Or it may hit us when we have seen what a bucket-loader, or perhaps a developer, who may, of course, be a very good person, has done to the wetlands, and to the wood frogs that had inhabited it.

The religious parent who teaches her children about God’s love and unlimited power should be prepared to think freshly with her children about the problem of evil. It is not easy for anyone to do that. Yet, I maintain, it is part of the responsibility of a religious parent to have an honest discussion with her children about the problem of evil.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the challenge for secular parents is not entirely different. They might hope to avoid having to deal with any form of the problem of evil with their children. But for parents who have a genuine respect for their children and for the hard questions their children ask, the hope of evading the problem of evil may well be frustrated. After all, evil does sometimes come from good.

Parents may not want their children to think of either frogs or bucket-loaders as inherently good things. Yet, one could argue, it is an impoverished childhood in which nothing seems to be unqualifiedly good. Julian’s consuming love of nature, and of trucks, gave his childhood an especially magical quality. But it also gave him the problem of evil.

I turn now to my second topic, the issue of whether the idea of morality as something commanded by God can help ward off the threats of nihilism and moral relativism so pervasive in our society. No doubt many religious parents feel they have a distinct advantage over their secular counterparts when it comes to moral education. After all, they can teach their children that it is God, no less, who commands us not to kill, lie, or steal, and it is God who commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

imageFor parents who have a genuine respect for their children and for the hard questions their children ask, the hope of evading the problem of evil may well be frustrated. After all, evil does sometimes come from good.image

Secular parents who are conscientious about raising their children to be morally good people may also wish they had an easy way to ground morality and protect their children from cynicism and moral relativism. They may even harbor the secret wish that they could pull out the divine trump card to fend off the attractions of immorality their children will have to face.

Yet the divine trump card is not fully effective in the way religious parents may expect. This was shown a long time ago by Plato in his dialogue Euthyphro. In that dialogue, Socrates asks what the holy is. After several failed efforts to answer the question, Euthyphro offers the suggestion that the holy is doing what the gods love. Socrates then asks, “Is it holy because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is holy?”

imageThe religious parent and the secular parent are in much the same boat when it comes to raising their children to be morally good people.image

We can translate Socrates’s famous question into the theology of monotheism by asking, “Is it morally right (for example) to tell the truth simply because God commands it (‘Do not bear false witness’), or does God command us to tell the truth because that is the morally right thing to do?” If we say it is right simply because God commands it, we leave open the possibility that moral rightness could be a mere matter of divine whim. For most religious believers, that doesn’t seem right. But, if we say that God commands us to be truthful because that is the morally right thing to do, then it seems we should be able to understand what is morally required of us independently of the fact that God commands it.

I once discussed the Euthyphro problem with two classes of seventh graders in a Hebrew day school. We were discussing whether the things God commands in Leviticus 19 are holy because God commands them or whether instead God commands them because they are holy. One student said this: “God wants us to do these things because they are holy. If God [had] told us to kill, steal, and commit adultery, would [those] be holy thing[s] to do? I don’t think so. I think these things are holy, and God wants us to do them because they are holy.”

If what this seventh grader said is right, and I am inclined to agree that the religious person should say this, then the religious parent and the secular parent are in much the same boat when it comes to raising their children to be morally good people. Moral development will have to include cultivating moral feelings, such as empathy and a sense of fairness; developing habits of telling the truth and keeping promises; nurturing attitudes of generosity and loyalty; and reflecting on how to resolve moral dilemmas when, for example, the duty to tell the truth or keep a promise conflicts with the duty to help someone in need, or under threat of assault.

Whether the ideal of a moral life has a divine sanction is not a trivial question. But once one sees the implications of the Euthyphro problem, the question of divine sanction does not offer much enlightenment about what morality requires, or about how to become a moral person. Unless what God commands us to do is what we morally ought to do anyway, then the very idea of a divine sanction for the moral law seems to threaten the rationality of trying to be moral.

So where does this leave thoughtful secular parents with respect to issues about the problem of evil and the nature of morality? It seems to leave them in roughly the same situation as thoughtful religious parents. Children cannot be shielded from the problem of evil, even by trying to keep them innocent of theology. Evil does come from good. And as for helping one’s children to become caring, fair-minded, responsible moral agents, the primary resources open to religious parents are much the same as those open to secular ones.

If one believes that God is supremely just, merciful, and good, then it will follow that God also wants us to be just, merciful, and good. But we will have the very same reasons for being just, merciful, and good as God has, even if, as the religious among us may suppose, we don’t understand those reasons as well as we think God does, or even as well as we ourselves would like to.

GARETH MATTHEWS (1929–2011) was a renowned scholar in the philosophy of children and professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the University of Virginia, and the University of Minnesota. He authored many articles and three books on philosophy and childhood: Philosophy and the Young Child (1980), Dialogues with Children (1984), and The Philosophy of Childhood (1994). Sadly, Gary passed away a few years after the first edition of this book was published. He was the father of three and grandfather of seven.

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