CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

No, I am not going to argue in this post that video games are part of the problem of evil (if God were omni-benevolent, surely He would intervene to prevent innocent youngsters from being exposed to violent video games?). But I do think that video games can help clarify and reinforce one popular response to the problem of evil, which is normally called a 'free will' defense but which I think should be called the 'consistent consequences' defense, or something similar.


It goes something like this: in order for moral choice to be meaningful, the consequences of those choices have to be consistent and irreversible. If you attack someone with the intent of hurting them, that person has to get hurt. If you chose to lie to someone and you are found out, the embarrassment has to be real. Choices have consequences. This means that God cannot intervene every time human beings are ugly to other human beings. It is inherent in the concept of a moral universe that the consequences of one's choices be consistently upheld, however monstrous those consequences might be. On a (much) smaller scale I am aware of this reality as a teacher: if I want a smoothly functioning classroom environment, I must lay down the class's rules and procedures, as well as the consequences for disregarding them. If I doll out those consequences inconsistently, applying the full penalty to some while letting others off the hook, the students will rightly suspect me of hypocrisy and will not know what to expect in my class. This will encourage their inherent opportunism in testing boundaries (children and adolescents always try to see what they can get away with), and will inhibit their moral development.

Contrast this with playing a video game, in which most choices are completely reversible: if you go down a wrong path or make a move which results in the death of your character, or someone you are defending, you can simply restart the level. In many games, including my all-time favorite Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, you can choose whether to play the story as a good guy, accumulating wisdom and virtue as you go along, or a bad guy, deceiving others and acquiring demonic power as you go along. It doesn't matter which way you go, because you can always play the game again and make different choices. It's even fun to play the dark side, all the more so because you know people aren't really being hurt.

I submit that a world more like a video game than the real one, in which bad choices rarely if ever have lasting bad consequences, would not be a moral universe at all, and would not reflect the wisdom of a loving God. A world in which choices did not have consistent consequences would be a world unable to produce morally mature persons.

So far the discussion has centered on a defense of the necessity of moral evil: the bad choices people make must have real consequences in order for morality to be meaningful. But similar reasoning can also apply to the problem of natural evil: in order for us to have meaningful experiences in this world, there must be consistent consequences of our disregard for the order of things. If we build a house too close to a river, we risk it being flooded. If we don't plant crops on time, the harvest will be poor and people will go hungry.

Of course these considerations do not address what may be at the heart of the problem of evil: why bad things happen to good people, or why people who make good choices often suffer, while those who make bad choices flourish (similarly in the case of natural evil, why a drought would devastate crops planted by diligent farmers trying to support their families). But I think they do go some way toward explaining why God doesn't intervene more in those cases when people make bad choices that result in the suffering of others.

15 comments:

Hi JD,

There's some truth to what you say. However, isn't this rather like one of those SF stories in which an advanced alien race kidnaps human beings and subjects them to brutal experiments to learn about the nature of compassion?

At the end of the experiment, the aliens are more empathetic to the plight of others. But does that justify the sacrifice of human test-subjects?

One could come up with similar scenarios. A rich parent wants to teach his young son compassion. He kidnaps street children to be experimental playmates for his son. At first his son abuses his playmates. Injures some, kills others. The rich parent disposes of the victims.

But after a while the son learns the value of compassion.

Contrast this with playing a video game, in which most choices are completely reversible: if you go down a wrong path or make a move which results in the death of your character, or someone you are defending, you can simply restart the level.

You never played a Roguelike!

Really though, I think the analogy to video games is powerful.

J.D.,

I think you can push the illustration a little further, because for a video game to have any sort of coherence, it has to have a uniform physics. The physics and hit detection are probably the most crucial part of building a good game, and if the math isn't consistent, there really isn't any game to be played. That's what makes the classics so good, is that their system of movement and hit detection is intuitive and consistent.

When, for instance, someone finds a way in the original Super Mario Bros. to get caught halfway into a wall, it is considered a "glitch" and a mistake of the programmers. If these glitches characterized the entire game, then there would be no game to play, because there would be no internal coherence to the physics.

Ok, I'll stop now before I reveal too much of my inner dork. That was a very interesting post.

BTW, Alexander Pruss has a very interesting set of posts on Theodicy. Here's one that really struck me in evaluating the moral outcomes of the Holocaust: http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.com/2010/05/horrendous-evil-and-moral-development.html

http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2010/06/video-games-and-argument-from-evil.html

Brad,

How is your illustration distinguishable from Deism. Or is it?

Regarding Pruss:

“Now, add the following thesis: In terms of value, a moderate amount of positive moral development trumps a very large amount of suffering. (Socrates would say—and I think he'd be right—that any amount of positive moral development trumps any amount of suffering.)”

That thesis strikes me as far from self-evident.

“Suppose I knew that by preventing a great suffering to myself I would be losing an opportunity for significant positive moral development. Would prudence permit me to refrain from preventing the suffering? I think it would. Nor would such a refraining from prevention be morally wrong.”

Several obvious problems:

i) Suffering isn’t equivalent to moral evil.

ii) Even if suffering is morally beneficial for me, it doesn’t follow that to make a second party suffer for my own benefit is justifiable.

iii) In many cases, suffering doesn’t contribute to the moral development of the affected party. To the contrary, it frequently contributes to a person’s moral decline.

Steve, I don't want to push the analogy too far.

As far as worrying about deism, I'm not sure that anyone would seriously contest that the universe we live in is characterized by a number of consistent, uniform processes. This, of course, is where the base for the design argument comes in. But that also doesn't allow for intervention from time to time, especially a la Lewis' explanation in Miracles. (I'm also looking into Pannenberg's "eschatological ontology", but that's a side point). There are great games that have some programming twists, but those twists are significant in light of the consistency of the rest of the game.

If you want to know what an inconsistent physics does to gameplay, look up "cat mario" or "syobon action" and see how frustrating it is to have glitches determine gameplay.

I guess my inner nerd is on full display now.

Oh, and for Pruss, I don't want to defend his thoughts here. I just thought that they were interesting in light of J.D.'s post. I also think there is a case to be made for the first thesis you present, but I'm not going to take the time to do that here.

surely He would intervene to prevent innocent youngsters from being exposed to violent video games?).

he allowed Marvel comics didn't he? Once you get away from the intrinsic goodness of DC all hell breaks loose.

At the end of the experiment, the aliens are more empathetic to the plight of others. But does that justify the sacrifice of human test-subjects?

I think Captain Kirk thought so.

Edit: Up a few comments I wrote "but this doesn't allow for"

Should read: "But this doesn't exclude..."

Brad Haggard said...

"Oh, and for Pruss, I don't want to defend his thoughts here. I just thought that they were interesting in light of J.D.'s post. I also think there is a case to be made for the first thesis you present, but I'm not going to take the time to do that here."

Are you referring to his thesis statement: “Now, add the following thesis: In terms of value, a moderate amount of positive moral development trumps a very large amount of suffering. (Socrates would say—and I think he'd be right—that any amount of positive moral development trumps any amount of suffering.)”

It would be interesting to see you make a case for that thesis.

Let's take a concrete illustration. Suppose I'm a recovering serial-killer. Due to a disadvantaged childhood (I'll spare you the Dickensian details), I used to be a sociopathic killer. Had no conscience, no compassion.

But after I started torturing women to death, I began to feel a twinge of guilt. Seeing them weep and beg for mercy, seeing their friends and family go on TV to plead for their loved one, began to awaken in me a dormant sense of empathy and remorse for my crimes.

Therefore, my moderate positive moral development trumps the suffering of my victims, as well as the suffering of their surviving loved ones. After all, "any amount of positive moral development trumps any amount of suffering"

Is that the thesis you'd like to defend? Give it your best shot.

steve, I don't think that's what Pruss is saying necessarily. He's talking about the "net" moral development of everyone involved. A better example would be someone who had to go through a suffering experience to achieve some sort of moral benefit, akin to physical training in sports. I don't think his focus is solely on the persons who are committing terrible acts. Just my understanding.

Brad Haggard said...

"steve, I don't think that's what Pruss is saying necessarily. He's talking about the "net" moral development of everyone involved. A better example would be someone who had to go through a suffering experience to achieve some sort of moral benefit, akin to physical training in sports. I don't think his focus is solely on the persons who are committing terrible acts. Just my understanding."

Brad,

How is your interpretation even possible? Suffering could only contribute to the net moral development of everyone involved (and keep in mind that he's confining himself to *positive* moral development) in case he believed in universal salvation. But unless I'm mistaken, Pruss is an orthodox Roman Catholic, not a universalist.

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