I've read a lot of books in my seven decades or so of avid reading.
What I've learned is that sometimes a book is worth reading for a single memorable thought that sticks in the mind long after the rest of the book has been forgotten.
I feel this happening with a sentence that keeps popping up in my psyche several days after I came across it in "Life is Hard," by Kieran Setiya, a philosopher who teaches at MIT. I've boldfaced the sentence below, placing it in the context of where it appears in Setiya's book.
Here it is by itself in all its thought-provoking glory.
Religious or not, we conjure the problem of evil whenever we protest that something should not be; and we engage in something like theodicy when we say it's for the best.
Here's an experience you may have had. You tell a friend about a problem you are coping with, maybe a blowup at work or in a close relationship, a health scare that has you rattled. They are quick to reassure you -- "Don't worry; it will all be fine!" -- or to offer you advice.
But their response is not consoling. Instead, it feels like disavowal: a refusal to acknowledge what you're going through. What we learn in moments like these is that assurance and advice can operate as denial.
Worse than denial, even, is the urge to justify human suffering. "Everything happens for a reason" -- except, of course, it doesn't. Philosophers have a word, "theodicy," for an argument that vindicates the ways of God to man.
Theodicies address the problem of evil: if God is omnipotent and benevolent, what accounts for the manifold evils of the world?
But theodicy has a life of its own, outside of narrowly theistic or doctrinal contexts. Religious or not, we conjure the problem of evil whenever we protest that something should not be; and we engage in something like theodicy when we say it's for the best.
The problem with theodicy is not just intellectual -- none of the arguments work -- but ethical, too. It's wrong to justify your own or others' suffering, to mute pity or protest in that way.
I find this sentence amazingly brilliant and well-said. It shows the value of having a philosopher take on the problem of living as well as possible in a world filled with suffering of many varieties.
Every day, many times a day in fact, I protest that something should not be.
When the sciatica in my right leg is more painful than usual. When our dog won't come when I call her. When Putin fires missiles at Ukraine apartment buildings, killing innocent civilians. When I'm late for my Tai Chi class and can't find a nearby parking space.
I'd never thought that I was conjuring the problem of evil when I do this. But it makes sense. After all, evil is viewed as the presence of something horrible that shouldn't be. In the paragraph above, that would be Putin wantonly killing Ukrainians who have no connection to the military.
Yet I think Setiya is correct that the conjuring of evil occurs when we protest that anything should not be.
After all, what exists is a fact. We may not like that it exists. We may want to work to stop it from existing. However, Setiya correctly says in his book that "We have to live in the world as it is, not the world as we wish it would be."
Evil is a creation of the human mind. I use the word occasionally. From now on I'm going to try to use it less often, because it serves no real purpose. What Putin is doing to the Ukrainian people isn't evil; it is terribly wrong.
Evil demands an explanation for its existence. But we conjure it into existence by viewing evil as something substantively real, often supernaturally real. Dealing with serious problems can happen just as easily without bringing evil into it.
Politicians like to use the term "evildoers" to justify harsh reactions, as was the case after 9/11. Why not just call them terrorists or extremists?
More broadly and personally, why do I need to tell myself that such-and-such shouldn't be in my life, when it so obviously is? I can dislike what is happening to me without feeling that its very existence is a mistake.
What is real never is a mistake. It is simply reality. If I don't like the pain in my leg, I can try to lessen the pain. But I gain nothing by complaining to myself that the pain shouldn't be, since it clearly is.
Regarding theodicy, which Setiya defines as vindicating the ways of God to man, I also agree with him that we engage in a secular version of theodicy when we say something is for the best. No, it is just a thing. It is just what is.
The sciatica in my right leg isn't for the best. There's no outside message being communicated to me when I feel that pain. Sure, I've learned some things from the pain, like having the fortitude to ignore it as much as possible for the 75 minutes or so of a Tai Chi class.
However, this is different than viewing something disagreeable as being for the best, as if there's a Cosmic Teacher who gives us suffering to convey a life lesson. That's absurd, and as Setiya says, "It's wrong to justify your own or others' suffering, to mute pity or protest in that way."
Suffering is simply suffering.
If we find meaning in our suffering, that's our business, and our creation. But to tell someone that they should look upon their suffering as being justified either by God's will or some human rationalization, that's cruel and wrong.