Just wanted to plug Hallquists open letter on evil:
And most people are comfortable making statements about what a loving person would do,
what a moral person would do, what a person who genuinely cared about others would do. Consider
an example—this time, rather than quoting an philosophy journal article, I'll just quote Wikipedia:
[Kitty] Genovese had driven home from her job working as a bar manager late on the night of March 13, 1964.
Arriving home at about 3:15 a.m. and parking about 100 feet (30 m) from her apartment's door, which was around the
rear of the building, she was approached by Winston Moseley, a black business machine operator. Moseley ran after her
and quickly overtook her, stabbing her twice in the back. Genovese screamed, "Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!"
Her cry was heard by several neighbors but, on a cold night with the windows closed, only a few of them recognized the
sound as a cry for help. When Robert Mozer, one of the neighbors, shouted at the attacker, "Let that girl alone!",
Moseley ran away and Genovese slowly made her way toward the rear entrance of her apartment building...
Other witnesses observed Moseley enter his car and drive away only to return ten minutes later. In his car he
changed his hat to a wide-rimmed one to shadow his face. He systematically searched the parking lot, train station, and
small apartment complex. Eventually he found Genovese who was lying, barely conscious, in a hallway at the back of
the building where a locked doorway had prevented her from entering the building... he proceeded to further attack her,
stabbing her several more times. Knife wounds in her hands suggested that she attempted to defend herself from him.
While she lay dying, he raped her. He stole about $49 from her and left her in the hallway. The attacks spanned
approximately half an hour.
This case is famous because, in the aftermath of her murder, it was widely reported that
many of Genovese's neighbors heard her cries for help but did nothing. Most people who heard this
had the reaction that something must have been wrong with her neighbors, that city life was eroding
people's concern for their fellows, and perhaps even that their failure to act was morally wrong.
I’ve never heard of this reaction being treated as anything but perfectly natural. It’s the least
remarkable thing about the case. We many worry that the case casts doubt on our assumptions about
what people we think of as “good” would have done, but I’ve never heard anyone question our
judgments here about what a truly good person would have done. So, if you’re confident in your
judgments about what a good person would do in certain situations, but not confident in your
judgments about what a loving God would do in similar situations, I must ask: why?
Maybe you’re inclined to tell yourself (it isn’t really a question) “who am I to pass judgment
on God?” To my ear, that sounds a little too much like saying, “Who am I to pass judgment on the
president?” but let me suggest what I hope is a charitable interpretation: that what you mean to say
is that you’re confident that there’s an all-powerful, morally perfect God, and therefore if something
happens he was at the very least right to allow it to happen, so if you’re ever inclined to think
otherwise you must be mistaken.
If that interpretation is right, we’re just talking about another way of saying you’re ready to
reject thoughts that initially seem right to you, if they conflict with your belief in God. It’s a
possibility I’ve already mentioned. If that’s what you’re doing when you decide not to “pass
judgment on God,” I’d like hear from you, because in my experience no one is ever so clear about
the matter. On the other hand, if you think there’s more to it than that, and if so, I’d be curious to
hear about that.
Though I just now introduced the example of Kitty Genovese to probe at the general lack of
confidence some people seem to have about (some of) their moral judgments, it’s also useful for
poking at the sort of response to the problem of evil I mentioned early on in this letter: that God
allows evil for the sake of some greater good. If you’re attracted to that sort of response, perhaps
this is what you will want to say in response to my questions: “At first it does seem to me that an
all-powerful, loving God wouldn’t allow some of the things I hear about on the news to happen, but
after thinking about it very carefully I’ve come to the conclusion that He might perfectly well allow
such things for the sake of some greater good, such as free will, or improving our souls, or perhaps
some cause that I’m unaware of.”
I almost understand what it’s like to think that, but when I wrote what I just wrote, I was
putting the issue gently. I can imagine a religious believer saying the words in quotation marks
above, but I can’t imagine someone saying very similar words only with “some of the things I hear
about on the news” replaced by “a five-year-old girl being raped, beaten, and strangled to death.” I
know someone is going to interject “that’s just because one is harder emotionally!” By now, though,
I hope no one would be surprised if I asked the person saying that whether they really believe it’s
just an emotional issue.
Kitty Genovese case raises another important question here. Suppose you’re bold enough to
say outright that thinking about greater goods dispel your worries about whether a loving God
would have allowed what happened to the five-year-old girl. I suspect there are still other things
you wouldn’t say. I suspect you wouldn’t say “It may seem like Kitty Genovese’ neighbors should
have called for help, but it would have been OK not to out of respect for the murderer’s free will.” I
suspect you wouldn’t say “It may seem like Kitty Genovese’ neighbors should have called for help,
but it would have been OK not to because the murder would likely have helped improve some other
people’s souls.” And for anyone attracted to the idea that God allows evil for reasons unknown to
us, I suspect you don’t think our knowledge of the consequences of our actions is so weak that
inaction is always justified. So, if I’ve just now been describing you, why do these things affect
your judgments about God, when you give them so little weight in your judgments about humans?