Steve Sachs Duke


Tuesday, December 09, 2003


Thoughts on Theodicy: I've been puzzled by the fact that people so often attribute unexpected good fortune--and only good fortune--to a greater force in the world. There's nothing wrong with feelings of gratitude, and it may be understandable to see football players kneel and pray in the end zone, or to read album liner notes containing shout-outs to the Lord. Ill fortune, though, is treated very differently; it takes a certain kind of spiritual fortitude to attribute a stray bullet or a terminal disease to the influence of Providence. (And how many receivers have you seen pray after dropping a catch?)

What I find strange about this pattern is that it seems to go against what I take to be our psychological needs. Human beings seem to have no problem accepting unpredicted benefits; finding a $20 bill on the street makes us happy in a way that isn't diminished by its contingency. A friendship that results from a chance encounter is no less valuable than one long-expected, and might even be treasured more because it was so unlikely and unforeseen. Similarly, we don't mind if comedies achieve their happy ending through a deus ex machina--there might be groans in the audience, but we smile and clap anyway.

But the situation is very different when it comes to unexpected losses. A play that ended with the hero inexplicably run over by a bulldozer in Act III would strike its audience as deeply unsatisfying (to say the least). In fact, some of the most anguishing moments in literature are in fact those caused by contingency--killing a loved one by mistake, missing the message from Verona because of the plague, getting hit by a car while running to meet a true love on top of the Empire State Building, etc.

And as in drama, so in life. While we'd be happy to think that we just got lucky in our successes (in school, in a career, etc.), we have trouble accepting the idea that our failures were just as random. The suggestion that events easily could have happened differently--that there is no reason behind them, that it was all a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, that our suffering might be ultimately purposeless--strikes us as truly terrible. And it's easy to see how fear of such unpredictable and unavoidable disasters could cripple our desire or ability to act.

Kant, in exploring this question, concluded that a belief in a divine being and in a rational explanation for events was a precondition for a moral life. He was not arguing that these beliefs could be justified by empirical observation, or that there was some "higher" route to the truth beyond scientific investigation, or even that individuals had to be motivated to act rightly by the promise of Heaven. Instead, Kant noted that our success or failure in achieving moral goals is often out of our hands, and if the universe were truly indifferent to our choices, we might feel that we have no chance of succeeding. Without a belief that the cosmos will cooperate, Kant wrote, the moral law would be "fantastic, directed to empty imaginary ends, and consequently inherently false."

Kant's argument is therefore the opposite of my earlier suggestion regarding Four Quartets, that there's a strong case for the possibility of right action (and a nobility that might motivate it) even in a world that's only getting worse. One possible explanation for the difference, however, might be Kant's alleged lack of what is sometimes called a non-ideal theory. (Ideal theories show what the world would look like if everyone obeyed the moral law; non-ideal theories must account for the fact that some people will break the rules.) If your system requires you to tell the truth to everyone, even the ax murderer at the door--as some have interpreted Kant--then to follow it you'll need a pretty darn strong conviction that everything will work out for the best.

But if a non-ideal theory is available, it might no longer be necessary to believe that the world is fundamentally on our side; our ethical system would then be specifically designed for the messy world in which we live. Non-ideal theories are often difficult to construct, especially in a framework of binding rights (consider Thomas Nagel's attempt in "War and Massacre"), and there's a real danger of constructing ad hoc exceptions to existing rules. But these theories have the strong advantage of teaching us how to live in a world that picks no favorites. They might not do much to salve our contingent, unexpected and perhaps undeserved wounds--nothing short of a full-blown theodicy really would--but they might teach us how to bind them up and go on.




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