Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Talbott's response to Beversluis

In an earlier post I presented John Beversluis’s critique of C. S. Lewis on the problem of evil. Beversluis’s central argument is that if theism retains the meanings we ordinarily attach to the term “good,” we have to admit that God is not good thus defined. If, on the other hand, we redefine goodness, we get the appropriate result, but it then means nothing to suppose that God is good.

Let us suppose, for example, that we define goodness as “in accordance with the will of the most powerful being in existence.” If we defined goodness in this way, we would have no trouble justifying the claim that God is good, but, the claim that God is good would be trivialized. If on the other hand, we retain the commensurability between the goodness of God and the goodness of human beings, we find that God must be regarded as not good. Beversluis maintains that Lewis does what he thinks, in the last analysis, any theist must do in order to justify God’s goodness, provide a revised definition for goodness. In particular Beversluis thinks that Lewis fatally compromises his Platonism convictions when he says that God sends pain to people to shatter their illusions.

Thomas Talbott, in his outstanding essay “C. S. Lewis and the Problem of Evil,” begins his discussion by drawing attention to the following statement from The Problem of Pain. Lewis writes:

If God is wiser than we His judgment must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil. What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil.
Talbott continues:
One the one hand, says Lewis, God’s judgment must differ from ours because he is wiser than we are; on the other, as indicated in the previous quotation, God’s good cannot be the same as our evil. Herein lies, I believe, a solution to the problem of evil.
In what ways might the moral judgments of a wiser person disagree with those of one who is not so wise but is operating essentially from the same moral framework? When considering a disagreement about the moral character of an act, one must distinguish carefully between two different cases: one in which all of the relevant facts, (such as the exact circumstances of the act, the available alternatives, etc.) are known, and one in which some of the relevant facts are not known. In the former case, a disagreement about the precise nature of the act—whether it be, for instance, a good act or a bad act, a loving act or a cruel act—probably would imply a difference in fundamental moral concepts; but in the latter case, (where some of the relevant facts remain unknown or are in dispute) such a disagreement would clearly not have that implication. A primitive who concludes that men in white coats bearing needles are cruel to children need not be operating from a moral framework that differs substantially from our own; nor would it be surprising to find that a loving father in a primitive culture wants to “protect” his child from the very shot of penicillin that a missionary doctor, filled with the love of God, wants to administer. The loving father simply lacks some important information. It is on ly an analogy, of course (and we should remember that primitives are often wiser than we are), but the analogy does illustrate an obvious point. That God is willing to permit a child to die from cancer, even though the child’s loving father desperately tries to save her, in no way entails that God’s “white” is the same as our “black.”

Talbott, T.B. (1987) “C.S. Lewis and the Problem of Evil,” Christian Scholars’ Review, 17(1): 36-51

I am including a link to Tom Talbott's home page.

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