Jeremy Bentham

This is the text of the second of a series of three talks I’ve been giving at St Bride's Liverpool, on the subject of why God allows evil and suffering. The first is here. You can listen to this one here.

These days many people argue that because of evil and suffering there cannot be a god at all.

So if there is no God, does that solve the problem of evil and suffering? Next week I’ll summarise how the Christian tradition has usually defended belief in God.

The question at issue is whether the way the universe works was entirely unintended and accidental, or whether there is some kind of intending mind making it happen for some purpose.

For the purposes of what we’re talking about here, when I mention God this is all I mean: some kind of mind with an intention, making the universe the kind of thing it is.

If there is such a god, why does God let us suffer as a result of natural processes? And why does God let us suffer as a result of other people’s immoral actions?

If there is no God, natural processes cause things like illness and floods but they don’t intend to. No intending is going on at all. Everything that happens is accidental, matter obeying the laws of nature. Depending on whether you believe in free will, you may think the same applies to moral evil as well.

The corollary is, everything is equally accidental, the good bits as well as the bad bits. So tommorow, when your house is burgled, your children are murdered and somebody hacks into your bank account, you sit down in front of the television and you say to yourself, ‘None of this matters. It’s just people doing what they have evolved to do.’

And the day after, when you win the lottery and you pass all your exams and you meet your perfect partner, again you say to yourself ‘So what? None of it matters.’

In practice the idea that nothing in the universe matters doesn’t suit us. After all, the reason why people keep asking why God allows suffering is that suffering does matter.

If it matters, and if there is no god, the alternative is to say that we create our own values. To see how this works, let’s distinguish between pain and suffering. In the nineteenth century Jeremy Bentham proposed a simple theory of utilitarianism. All right and wrong should be based on the greatest happiness of the greatest number. He thought it should be possible to measure pain and pleasure and calculate whether a particular action would produce more pleasure than pain.

Today they are described differently. Pain is a physical sensation caused by your nerves. Whether or not there is a god, pain functions as a warning system. Some people willingly accept pain for the sake of something they enjoy, like climbing a mountain or playing football.

Pleasure, on the other hand, is a condition of the mind. Pleasure has an opposite, which we can describe as discomfort or displeasure or suffering. Suffering can be caused by pain but it is usually also caused by activities of the mind: anxiety, despair, regret, guilt, shame, frustration. It also involves a sense of time including memory and anticipation, and the capacity to imagine alternatives. Our suffering reflects our values.

By a combination of nature and nurture, at any one time we have a collection of values, to some extent consistent with each other. People who believe in God usually think God has values, and the right values to have are the values God has. If there is no God, and there are no right answers, our values are just the values we have ended up with so they don’t express any deep truth.

To summarise so far, when it comes to suffering, not believing in God has two advantages. One is that there is nobody to blame for the way the world is. Floods and plagues are caused by impersonal laws of nature that didn’t intend anything. The corollary is that fundamentally nothing matters at all.

The other advantage is that, apart from direct physical pain, we bring our suffering on ourselves with the values we create. It is always possible to change our values, as there are no correct values.

Again there is a corollary. Nobody has the right to say one set of values is better than another. You may think burglary is wrong but the people who burgled your house just have different values. IS seems to think beheading Christians is a good thing to do. Boku Haram strongly believe in abducting school girls. In 1930s Germany lots of people really believed something needed to be done to get rid of the Jews.

In practice, nearly everyone sometimes presupposes that there must be a moral authority higher than society.

For example you may have heard about Stephen Fry’s recent interview. He told a television interviewer that he would have said to God:

Yes, the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole lifecycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.

Stephen Fry is saying that if there is a god, God is immoral. So Stephen has moral standards. It is not that he has made up these moral standards and God’s standards are different: his point is that if God did exist, God jolly well ought to run the world in accordance with Stephen’s standards. He speaks as though his standards are absolute. So where does he get them from?

A similar point is made in one of the most commonly cited texts on this question, a passage from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov describes a five-year-old girl praying to God while being deliberately tortured by her parents. He addresses his brother:

Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to ‘dear, kind God’!

Ivan’s point is that a good God would not have allowed cruelty merely in order to let us understand the difference between good and evil.

The problem is that if Ivan himself, and we the readers, had never learned to distinguish between good and evil, we would not be troubled by the acts of cruelty he described. We wouldn’t consider them cruel. We only get bothered about them because we do distinguish between good and evil, and we care about it.

More on this issue here and here .