Thursday, February 19, 2015

The 'crimes of nature' (John Stuart Mill on the Problem of Evil and Suffering)


John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) is most well known for his work on Utilitarianism and his contribution to debates surrounding the matter of gender equality and capital punishment. However, what might not be so well known is that in his 1874 book Three Essays on Religion - Nature, The Utility of Religion and Theism, he presented an objection to the design argument for the existence of God based on the presence of evil and suffering in the world.

As a Utilitarianism Mill was concerned with promoting actions that increased the amount of pleasure in the world, and very concerned to get rid of anything which acted contrary to this. In fact he believed 'good actions' were those things which lessen suffering in the world for the greatest number of people.

“The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest-Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” (Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill)

The crimes of nature

Mill begins with the observation that those who commit acts of unreasonable behaviour in the world are (justly) punished for their crimes, because by and large we believe that some things people do are fundamentally wrong:

"A man who should persist in hurling stones or firing cannon when another man "goes by", and having killed him... would very deservedly be found guilty of murder." (Three Essays on Religion)

In light of this, he believes nature is guilty of the exactly same sort of crimes that are condemned in humanity:

"Nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another are nature's everyday performances." (Three Essays on Religion)

For instance, nature allows the innocent to be killed by wild animals, or starve people, or freeze them to death, or even poison them. Yet despite these acts, nature is never held accountable for these 'crimes'. In fact, not only does nature take away life, but very often the means by which humanity may live by. Hurricanes and plagues of locusts both destroy crops and livelihoods, without a care or thought for those who may suffer as a result.*

Why Mill thinks design arguments do not work

Now if we accept that some of the things people do are wrong, but we also see nature committing these same acts, then Mill's point is that we cannot assume (on the basis of this evidence) that we live in a good world. A wrong-act is still a wrong act, no matter who (or what) performs it. Therefore, in light of these so-called 'crimes' of nature the belief that the world (and the universe) were designed and created by an all-powerful, all-knowing and benevolent deity is dubious:

"Even the love of 'order', which is thought to be a following of the ways of nature, is in fact a contradiction of them. All which people are accustomed to deprecate as 'disorder' and its consequences, is precisely a counterpart of nature's ways. Anarchy and the reign of Terror are overmatched in injustice, ruin, and death by a hurricane and a pestilence." (Three Essays on Religion)

Evil always prevails

Now it might be argued that what is deemed to be 'evil' is simply a matter of perspective. In other words, things might look bad  but God may have a better perspective on things, and may even have wanted things to be this way in the world for a particular reason. However, even this revised understanding of 'evil' would be rejected by Mill, for despite the fact that God may have a reason for things being as they are, or even if God was able to work everything out such that happiness/pleasure was the end result of bad things happening, the fact of the matter is that bad things are still happening; 'crimes' are still being committed!

Furthermore, even if we adopt the most optimistic view of things, Mill holds the opinion that there is more misfortune in the world than there is good. Even when some good does come from something bad happening to someone, it is still far more likely that in the end good will be overshadowed by misfortune. For the overriding tendency in nature (as far as Mill is concerned), is for evil to lead to more evil (rather than to more (or greater) good).

An unjust universe

Although some theologians argue that evil is present in the world to help us grow both morally and spiritually, Mill makes the point that if the universe was truly just then, '... each person's share of [suffering and happiness] would be exactly proportioned to that person's good or evil deeds'. In other words, if this really was a just universe, then surely the 'good' people in it would suffer far less than the 'bad' people (or the 'good' would have a far more pleasant life).

However, that this is evidently not the case means people have to rely on the notion of an afterlife to ensure that in the end justice will ultimately be done. Yet Mill makes the point that if we need an afterlife to ensure that justice will be done, then this is simply another nail in the coffin of the notion that this world and universe is perfectly just, ordered and designed place, and is the creation of an intelligent and benevolent designer:

"Not even on the most distorted and contracted theory of good which was ever framed by religious or philosophical fanaticism, can the government of nature be made to resemble the work of a being at once good and omnipotent." (Three Essays on Religion)

Some issues

Mill's analogy that the 'crimes' of nature are comparable with those of humanity, is dubious. For nature to be guilty of any 'crime' it must surely be shown first that nature intended to commit crimes and cause harm and misery to humanity. If nature does not act with intention in the same way humans do, then the
validity of Mill's analogy is questionable. Mill also seems to imply that for the world to exhibit design it should be a place of order. Yet the idea of order may not be the same for everyone. For instance, my
desk at work may be untidy, but I may know exactly where things are when I need them. So although it may appear that I work in a 'disordered' environment, this will be shown not to be the case if I am asked where something is on my desk, and I have no trouble locating it.

Also, the world does not have to be a place where good prevails in order for this to count as evidence for design. This assumes that God is benevolent (all-good), and only interested in creating such a world. However it might be that God exists, but is a malevolent being instead. If so, then it would be perfectly reasonable to argue that God designed and made a world where evil prevails over good:

  • God is a malevolent being
  • God created a world where evil triumphs over good
  • Evil exists and God exists

Finally, some Christians argue that the reason why there is misfortune in this world, is simply because things have gone wrong due to bad human choices (see The Problem of Evil and Suffering: Christian Responses). Disobedience has resulted in broken relationships between God and humanity; between men and women; and between humanity and the world (including non-human species). Originally God intended the world to be perfect, but it has become spoilt and less-than God intended it to be . So although the world exhibits the kind of disorder Mill believes will lead one away from a belief in a Creator, one could still hold the view that God created the world despite the presence of evil and suffering in it, because none of this is God’s fault.


*It should be kept in mind that Mill is here talking about natural evil rather than moral evil. For more on the difference between natural and moral evil see: The Problem of Evil and Suffering: An Introduction

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