Evil, Contingency, and Morality

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-5517-4740
Sandsmark, Evan, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Mathewes, Charles, AS-Religious Studies (RELI), University of Virginia

I argue that there is contingency in the universe. Events do not occur necessarily, and the cosmos does not follow a predetermined path. The world could have been otherwise. Theologically, this means that at least some events fall outside of God’s causal purview. This view challenges what I call “strong views of divine sovereignty,” the focus of Chapter One. These views, dominant in departments of theology and religion, either do not cede any dimension of the created order to contingent causes, or else attempt to place these “contingent” causes within God’s overarching providence. The former I associate with theological determinism, and the latter with theological compatibilism, although I argue that there is not a meaningful difference between these positions, and both entail the same unacceptable conclusion, namely, that God is responsible for evil.

We therefore must posit the reality of contingent events and trace the theological implications of doing so, the task of Chapter Two. Contingency shapes the causal architecture of the cosmos, and springs from two sources: indeterministic acts of free will, which issue from the wills of creatures themselves, and chance occurrences, which result from natural processes that are not driven by divine intentionality. Spacetime consists of an exceedingly complex and ever-changing matrix of causes and effects over which God does not exercise exhaustive control. Much that occurs in the world, both good and bad, happens for no reason at all.

The view I advance has important normative implications, which I discuss in Chapter Three. Most notably, a world with contingency gives rise to moral dilemmas, or situations that cannot be resolved in a way that avoids wrongdoing. This phenomenon is captured by the “problem of dirty hands,” and is felt most acutely when we face “supreme emergencies,” which are catastrophes that can only be prevented through immoral means. When a failure to act leads to sufficiently terrible consequences, we must be prepared to violate principles that are generally (and rightly) regarded as inviolable. I argue, in short, that actions can be “necessary but immoral.”

Each chapter of the dissertation corresponds to the three key themes named by the dissertation’s title. The first chapter discusses evil, and how the strong view of divine sovereignty struggles to account for its emergence. The second chapter analyzes contingency—what this means, and how it manifests in the world. And the third chapter examines morality, and how the contingent turns of history limit our normative aspirations. We live in a devastated world, disfigured by evil and suffering, and clouded by moral confusion. These problems collectively confirm that the world is not exhaustively controlled by God, but is instead subject to contingency. The world is, in a word, fallen, and ultimately a fallen world is best understood as a world riddled with contingency.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
contingency, problem of evil, philosophy of religion, Catholic theology, divine sovereignty, dirty hands, Christian ethics
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: