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I hope this is not too general of a question, but the more I thought about it the more I realised it was a very difficult question to answer. It does not necessarily pertain to anything religious, but I believe in a God who is eternally good, just so you know the angle that I'm coming from. Anyway, here is my question: Would the idea of something or someone being truly 'good' have ever come about if it never had the contrast of something 'bad' or 'evil' to compare it to? Hypothetically speaking, if someone were to never experience anything bad, would they ever have the understanding of something being good?

August 6, 2011

Response from Jonathan Westphal on August 25, 2011
What you describe is one response (one that has occasionally been used by theists) to the problem of evil. It is sometimes called the "contrast" argument. It is found for example in Leibniz's Theodicy of 1810, in various forms, along with other arguments defending theism. The version that you propose is that evil must exist for there to be an understanding of good. In some versions of the contrast argument, evil must be there if good itself is to exist.

I think it is possible however to have a very good understanding of something positive (the positive numbers, for example) without understanding something negative. Again, I can perfectly well enjoy a good ice cream without ever having tasted a bad one, and know that it is good, at least in the sense that I enjoy it. I don't think that I myself have ever had a bad ice cream, rather than the odd less than perfect one, though I may be wrong, but in any case my enjoyment of all the good ones would be much the same even if I had had a bad experience, and unimpaired even if I hadn't.

Besides, why the enormously high price tag on the understanding of good? How much is the understanding of the good really worth, and why? Is it so important to understand the good (and what does it mean here, precisely, to understand the good?) that we have to import into the world the untold and seemingly endless suffering and destruction that constitute evil to make it possible? Wouldn't it be better for us for evil not to exist and for us not to understand the good? It might be replied that then we would have no basis to choose the good over the evil; but in the world we are imagining there is no evil not to choose!

Good can also exist without evil, as opposed to the understanding of evil. My good treatment of an animal requires no larger background of evil to make it stand out, by contrast, so to speak. It stands out because and deserves the description of something that is good because of what it non-relationally is, the treatment of an animal that results in the animal enjoying a good life, of which, I think, animals never seem to tire.

In general, therefore, it seems to me that contrast arguments defending theism against the argument from the existence of evil fail.

Of course there are other responses to the problem of evil that are available to the theist. The freewill defence and the soul-making defence are examples.


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