Gabriel Marcel on the Mystery of Evil

Here is a brief excerpt from my first bookEvil and the Evidence for God, published in 1993:

“Some philosophers have been rather adroit in their expression of this theme. For Gabriel Marcel, the only problem of evil is what is sometimes called the ‘existential’ mode of the problem. If Marcel is correct, this language intrudes a pseudodistinction and the so-called logical problem of evil becomes a pseudoproblem, or a mystery degraded to the level of a problem. To seek ‘the causes or the secret aims’ of experienced evil, the professed goal of any theodicy, is to view evil ‘from outside,’ where evil no longer ‘touches me’ and is therefore ‘no longer evil which is suffered.’ And evil that ceases to be suffered ‘ceases to be evil.’ So the only evil that exists is the evil that we encounter in our prereflective lived experience. Our ivory tower incursions into logical territory miss the heart of the matter.”

It has always seemed to me that Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) was onto something. Today I would say it is a penetrating insight. The details can be found in his little book The Philosophy of Existentialism. But the themes intimated there are explored and developed throughout his essays and plays.

Today, October 8, is the anniversary of Marcel’s death. His work lives on and his influence continues, notably through the work of the Gabriel Marcel Society. I hope you’ll venture to explore the rich texture of Christian sensibility reflected in the pages of this French thinker of the 20th century.

Novel Quotation—What University Professors Do

This quotation comes from the novel A Novel Bookstore, by Laurence Cossé. It speaks knowingly of the professor’s vocation.

‘That’s the way they are, those university professors,’ said Madame Huon, ‘they work one day a week.’ ‘One day!’ echoed Madame Antonioz. ‘You need at least two hours to get to Chambéry. If you take off an hour for lunch, that leaves half a day.’

We have been found out, I’m afraid!

Polling Today’s Philosophers about What They Believe

Want to know what today’s philosophers believe? Anthony Gottlieb reports results of a poll taken by Australian philosopher David Chalmers. The Chalmers poll probes philosophers’ beliefs about Read more of this post

Arthur Schopenhauer’s Penchant for Animals


Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

I don’t know whether Arthur Schopenhauer liked animals, but he sure did talk about them a lot. And what he had to say makes you wonder if he wasn’t Plato come back as a 19th-century zoologist pretending to be a philosopher.

If his philosophical theory is right, he really had no choice.


Comment on “Euthyphro’s Lament”

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...

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Roger Morris has kindly referred me to a blog where the relation between God and morality is discussed in two unsigned posts: “Euthyphro’s Lament” and the briefer “One Other Thing” (in which the author promises that this is “the Absolute Bloody Final word from me” on the issue he raises).

The “Euthyphro problem” lies at the heart of a dialogue recorded by Plato, between Socrates and one called Euthyphro. This dialogue has a fitting title: Euthyphro; it is sometimes called The Euthyphro. Euthyphro is a great introduction to the Socratic method on a topic of broad interest because it concerns the nature of ‘piety.’ Socrates presses the question, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” This is called a ‘dilemma’ because it seems to present Euthyphro with stark choices, both of which are troubling in their own way.

Let it be noted that the problem of the nature of piety is not resolved in this dialogue of Plato’s. Nor is it definitively settled that both lemmas set forth in Socrates’ question are impossibilities.

It’s worthwhile keeping this in mind when considering a modified version of the problem in contemporary discussions of the relation between God and morality. The question in this context differs from the original in two main respects: (1) the dilemma now assumes some version of monotheism, and (2) the dilemma may be expressed in terms of the will or commands of God, rather than in terms of what is loved or hated by God. Another possible difference is that (3) the dilemma is now less concerned with piety as a character trait than with moral actions (in obedience to divine commands).

Here’s a characteristic statement of the new form of the dilemma, expressed as a question:

Is a morally right action right because it is willed or commanded by God, or is it willed or commanded by God because it is morally right?

If an action is morally right because it is willed or commanded by God, then whatever God wills or commands is right, and would be right just in virtue of his willing or commanding it. It’s supposed to follow that God could will or command anything whatsoever—including actions we rightly abhor, such as rape and murder—and what is willed or commanded would be (for that reason alone) morally right.

On the other hand, if a morally right action is willed or commanded by God because it is right, then it’s supposed to follow that God, who is otherwise thought to be utterly sovereign over all things, is subservient to an ontologically independent (objectively existing) standard of right and wrong.

So we have it that either (a) the goodness of any right act is arbitrary, subject to divine whim, or (b) God is less than sovereign because subject to an independent moral authority.

From these stark choices it is sometimes argued that God does not exist, or that the concept of God is incoherent.

Consider the first horn of the dilemma. Why is the morality of a right act thought to be arbitrary? Because its rightness is linked to the will or commands of God. But that, it seems, is tantamount to saying that God’s will and commands are themselves arbitrary. But why think that? I see no reason to seize the other horn of the dilemma in order to avoid this supposed implication.

What about the second horn? Most of its formulations use terminology without clear delineation of their significance. We must know, for example, in what sense God is presumed to be sovereign, in what sense ultimate moral authority is thought to be independent or external to God (or God’s character), and in what sense God is to be considered subservient to this external standard. The burden of making these notions precise is weighty. It is also frequently ignored.

In “Euthyphro’s Lament,” the author attempts the required clarification by saying that “there is an objective standard – logically prior to God’s character – that constrains God’s character.” But I must say that the notion of an objective (moral) standard as “logically prior” to anything (be it God or something else) is less than clear, and the suggestion does little to illuminate the supposed problem. Further, we must understand this vague notion of “logical priority” before we can make any sense of the claim that some logically prior standard “constrains God’s character.” How does it “constrain”?

I think it also needs to be said that the formulation of divine command theory in the essay is awkward. The author says,

Briefly, Divine Command theory states that it is good to obey God’s commands.

A more adequate formulation is needed. Here’s a better approximation, I think:

What makes a morally right action right is that it is commanded by God, and what makes a morally wrong action wrong is that it is prohibited by God.

From this it does follow, I suppose, that it’s (morally) good to heed God’s commands. But that is a different matter.

On the divine command theory, God’s will determines the rightness or wrongness of morally significant human actions. The theory, as a theory of morality, is concerned with the moral character of human actions. It is a separate question why God wills what God wills.

I conclude with three brief points.

First, this post is not a defense of divine command theory, but an attempt to impose clarity in relation to a less than clear statement of the associated problems in a particular blog post.

Second, it is odd if the envisioned dilemma concerning God’s relation to morality implies that God does not exist. It is so odd, in fact, that it’s far more likely that the proposed dilemma is a clever contrivance with less bite than is often imagined.

One may say that the dilemma is not the mainstay of an argument against theism, that it is merely rhetorical, a challenge to the theist to explain precisely what is God’s relation to morality. Ah, and if the theist falters? What then? Surely this is supposed to mean something.

Or one may say that the dilemma showcases a problem for theism that—whether or not it entails that theism is false—delivers the naturalist from the threat of any moral argument for God’s existence. The proper answer to that is that there are varieties of arguments from morality for theism, some better than others (and some no good at all). The best arguments are invulnerable to the dilemma we have been considering. And they have the further advantage of highlighting severe limitations of utterly naturalistic conceptions of ethics.

Third, adapting the dilemma posed in Plato’s Euthyphro to current discussions of God and morality may preempt proper consideration of what is “logically prior” (if that means anything), namely, the question, “Why does God will what God wills?” The answer to that must depend on what sort of being God is. Suppose God is such that he is neither subject, in any meaningful sense, to some external standard of morality, nor good in some merely arbitrary sense. Is there really anything deeply disturbing about such a conception? Mysterious perhaps. But disturbing?

Suggested Reading:

David Foster Wallace

He was someone I thought it would be great to meet sometime. Had I known he was living and working only a stone’s throw away, it might have been arranged.

Unfortunately, that won’t be possible. David Foster Wallace hanged himself and was found by his wife when she returned home Friday night, September 12, 2008. He was 46.

Wallace was clever with words. He was inventive. He employed extensive footnotes in his fiction. And he was candid. He went naked onto the page and exposed his soul in ways few novelists do.

His parents were university professors, his father in the department of philosophy at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). David Foster Wallace himself majored in English and philosophy at Amherst College. And it shows in his writings.

His writings reveal something else, too. In his tribute to Wallace, David Gates writes that “we’ll surely be spotting more and more of these clues in his work,” clues of his long-standing depression and contemplation of suicide. I find it hard to believe that Wallace’s readers didn’t suspect it already, because the clues are littered everywhere.

While reading Wallace myself, I would recall the thesis that genius and great art are often accompanied by threatened madness, that great talent and erudition can only be managed with a colossal effort of self-possession that no one else but the artist can know.

In her book, The Midnight Disease, neurologist Alice Flaherty examines the mental disorders that frequently haunt the most creative writers. She develops an illuminating theory of “manic hypergraphia.” Kay Redfield Jamison, whose work I’ve recommended on this blog, explores the culverts of this condition in a wonderful book called Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. The treasure of a gifted man’s labor is more precious when understood in the light of this fire.


As it happens, David Foster Wallace travelled with John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000. He wrote a book about it that came out this past summer. It’s hailed as a journalistic tour de force by someone other than your typical political journalist. It’s called:

McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking about Hope.

Kindle edition

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