The Problem of Evil

In part 10 of David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, three characters (Demea, Philo, and Cleanthes) continue a discussion that has already been going on for some time.1 The discussion, however, now enters a new phase. Cleanthes has previously been stressing the view that God is, in many ways, like human beings, and both Demea and Philo have resisted his way of talking.2 As part 10 of the Dialogues gets under way they press their case against him by drawing attention to evil. The topic of human misery', says Philo, 'has been insisted on with the most pathetic eloquence, that sorrow and melancholy could inspire.'3 According to Demea, 'the united testimony of mankind, founded on sense and consciousness' shows that our pain and suffering is something undeniable.4

What kinds of woe do Philo and Demea have in mind here? To begin with, Philo is thinking of damage things do to each other. He says:

The whole earth ... is cursed and polluted. A perpetual war is kindled amongst all living creatures. Necessity, hunger, want stimulate the strong and courageous: Fear, anxiety, terror agitate the weak and infirm. The first entrance into life gives anguish to the new-born infant and to its wretched parent. Weakness, impotence, distress attend each stage of that life: And it is at last finished in agony and horror... The stronger prey upon the weaker, and keep them in perpetual terror and anxiety. The weaker too, in their turn, often prey upon the stronger, and vex and molest them without relaxation. Consider that innumerable race of insects, which either are bred on the body of each animal, or flying about infix their stings on him. These insects have others still less than themselves, which torment them. And thus on each hand, before and behind, above and below, every animal is surrounded by enemies, which incessantly seek his misery and destruction.5

Demea subsequently suggests that people tend to triumph over animals that threaten them, but Philo merely continues to drive home his point. He notes that we are prone to worry and fretfulness even when we have achieved certain states of well-being, and he adds that we oppress each other:

This very society by which we surmount those wild beasts, our natural enemies; what new enemies does it not raise to us? What woe and misery does it not occasion? Man is the greatest enemy of man. Oppression, injustice, contempt, contumely, violence, sedition, war, calumny, treachery, fraud; by these they mutually torment each other. And they would soon dissolve that society which they had formed, were it not for the dread of still greater ills, which must attend their separation.6

Demea does not disagree with Philo here. Indeed, he goes on to enlarge on what Philo says by adding to his list of horrors. For, notes Demea, people are also the victims of their physical and psychological constitutions. We are, he observes, prone to disease; and we are subject to remorse, shame, anguish, rage, disappointment, anxiety, fear, dejection, and despair:

Were a stranger to drop, on a sudden, into the world, I would show him a specimen of its ills, an hospital full of diseases, a prison crowded with malefactors and debtors, a field of battle strowed with carcasses, a fleet foundering in the ocean, a nation languishing under tyranny, famine, or pestilence. To turn the gay side of life to him, and give him a notion of its pleasures; whither should I conduct him? to a ball, to an opera, to court? He might justly think, that I was only showing him a diversity of distress and sorrow.7

In short, Philo and Demea have three kinds of woe in mind - (1) ills inflicted on things in the world by natural predators and the like, (2) ills inflicted by people on each other, and (3) ills that affect us because of ways in which our bodies and minds operate (or fail to operate). And Philo thinks that all of these misfortunes place a pretty hefty question mark over belief in God in so far as a likeness is pressed between God and human beings. He asserts:

Epicueus's old questions are yet unanswered. Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?8

Cleanthes has been comparing God with people, especially morally good ones. Philo is now implying that badness in the world casts doubt on such a comparison. For good people alleviate or prevent ills in so far as they can. Given that many ills are not alleviated or prevented, the inference (so Philo is suggesting) is that God (if there be one) is either lacking in power or morally bad. And that is what others have concluded. In reply to Philo, one might suggest that there are ills of which God (though neither impotent nor malevolent) is simply ignorant, Yet God is commonly said to be all-knowing (omniscient), and with this thought in mind many have added to Philo's charge the codicil: 'Given the ills that there are, God (if there be one) is not omniscient, or not all-powerful, or not morally good; or he is some but not all of these; or he is none of them.' Yet, so it is often claimed, God is all of these things. So people thinking along Philo's lines (or thinking that they think along Philo's lines) have frequently insisted that theists are faced with a problem, one damaging to their position as theists - the problem of evil, as it is usually called, though, as we shall presently see, it makes sense to speak in this context of problems of evil (implying philosophically distinct problems) rather than of the problem of evil (implying only one).9

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