Thursday, July 22, 2004

Good from evil

In Dialogue 36:3, Janice Allred argues that punishment is evil (and therefore the scriptures attributing punishment to God are incorrect). She discusses common defenses of punishment:

Defenses of punishment argue that although inflicting pain is generally wrong, punishment serves a higher purpose which justifies this infliction of pain. This argument is a form of the argument that the end justifies the means. Is it possible to do something good by doing evil? Do not the means determine the end? Can evil be overcome by evil? If defenders of punishment maintain that the good ends accomplished by punishment can be accomplished in no other way, they are defending a view of reality which holds that evil is necessary to bring about good.

(Dialogue 36:3, p. 14)

Setting aside the issue of punishment itself, I've been thinking about this question: Is it possible to do something good by doing evil? Some of the classic scenarios may call this into question; e.g., do you lie to the Gestapo about hiding Jews in your attic? If lying is unequivocally evil, then it seems that we would say that we can bring about good (saving a life) by doing evil (lying).

And Allred herself actually gives an example just three pages later (p. 17):

We act from desire. Our desire seems good to us. Sometimes a person needs to sin in order to manifest desire that is not good -- in order to learn, to have the possibility of repentance. Only the agent can decide what he should do, which is not to say that whatever he chooses is good or right, but it may be necessary for his growth.

I think there are two things at work here. First, there is the question of whether something evil (sinning) can bring about good (learning and repentance). But I think these examples may also challenge our views of whether something is good or evil. Going back to the classic example of lying to the Gestapo, sometimes I think this example leads us to say that lying is not unequivocally evil, but that in certain situations is actually good.

If this is correct, then it seems that to some extent, “a view of reality which holds that evil is necessary to bring about good” seems very defensible. These situations lead me to believe that sometimes the ends do justify the means.

Those who share Allred's view may not agree that the ends justify the means, even in this kind of scenario. But it seems to me that the alternative is to say that evil can bring about good (even if the evil is not justified by the good end).

And so, in the end, it seems very reasonable to me to say that something we might generally (or even universally) consider evil may be either justified by, or even necessary for, good ends. (And, if necessary, the question of justification seems moot.)

And so it does not seem unreasonable to me that we should be able to accept the attribution of punishment to God.

1 comment:

  1. Here's a question:

    Punishment involves the infliction of a pain -- and thus in Allred's point of view is evil.

    Is she talking solely about physical pain? Of course, no pain is *wholly* physical (as I understand it) and 'psychic' (spiritual) pain can manifest itself physically.

    I bring this up because if punishment is evil, then what are we to make, for example, of the idea that those who don't repent have to suffer even as Jesus did?

    Or to come at it from a different angle -- God's attempts to bring faith to his children sometimes leads to pain. The most dramatic example would be that of Alma the Younger who fell into a sort of coma/trance after an angel rebukes him and experiences acute spiritual pain as part of his repentance process. One could argue that the appearance of the angel isn't a 'punishment' -- but it seems to have the hallmarks of Godly punishment.

    A question about the article itself -- what forms of punishment is Allred speaking about?

    Finally: Is causing pain = doing evil? That seems to be the criteria that some people use. But it seems to me that evil is more closely bound up with that which damages our relationship with God rather than pain per se. Which is not to say that causing others pain isn't generally an act which damages our relationship with God (and often endangers the relationship of our victim with God).