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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

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The Walk: Christian Pessimism Part Two

Luck and Necessity

<p>Graphic by Jackie Llanos</p>

Graphic by Jackie Llanos

Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian. 

To review from two weeks ago, I am seeking here to provide an account of how pessimist thought can be compatible with a Christian worldview and ethic. Pessimist thought is a philosophical framework that came about as a rejection of the “good news” stories common in popular frameworks advanced most notably by Kantians and Utilitarians. 

These “good news” stories in moral philosophy assert that “only the moral really, or seriously or ultimately, matters,” and that a moral framework need not address luck or necessity, because they are not based in things that individual actors can control. Pessimists consider this to be faulty, because they believe that what occurs because of luck or necessity materially affects our lives, even though our choices are not involved in how. Therefore, they believe that, because moral frameworks ought to be invested in truth-telling, a robust moral framework should be able to address luck and necessity. 

A quick aside here on terms, there is a lot of disagreement on what luck is or if it exists, but regardless of the language that we use to describe it, these are the sorts of events that I am describing when I talk about luck and necessity. An example of bad luck is a person driving along a road at night and someone else steps out into the road, giving the driver no chance to stop before hitting the pedestrian and killing them. 

Opponents of the concept of luck would describe the myriad agential choices that lead to this tragedy but regardless, the driver did not do anything different than what countless people do every day and she has reached a different outcome. An example of necessity is Agamemnon being forced to choose between sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to save the Greek army and letting his armada stall in the ocean, leading his army to starve at sea. Agamemnon was placed in a position to choose between two terrible options and many of the factors contributing to making this choice were out of his control. These two examples are rough pictures of what I mean by luck and necessity.

Many worldviews are required to accept the existence of necessity and luck. There is still plenty of room for debate in these circles among those worldviews, but the pessimist premise of “bad things happen for reasons outside of agential choice” is one that most people are required to accept. 

However, belief in an omnipotent being (for Christians this will be God but you can call it whatever you want) opens up the possibility to reject the premise. Christians could reject the pessimist premise and say no, bad things never occur outside of agential choice. God gave us free will, which explains why people do bad things, and God actively causes all the other bad things. I do not think this is a good move.

Christians believe that God is not only omnipotent but also perfectly good. Therefore, to explain why God actively causes all the other bad things, one would also need to say that the bad things are deserved by the people they happen to. This opens us up to saying that the victims of natural disasters — and a whole litany of other people who we would not see as deserving of punishment — in fact, deserve what happened to them. The unattractiveness of this statement is why Christians should accept the pessimist premise.

So if we accept the pessimist premise, what does that say about God? The acceptance of this premise seems to threaten God’s sovereignty. Natural phenomenon occurring without His direct input seems to create an image of a God that is, at least in some way, hands-off. However, this hands-off quality does not seem to be at odds with an omnipotent and perfectly good God. A plausible picture to me is that the purpose of God’s project is to give us the opportunity to be good or bad. In pursuit of this end, He gave us free will and placed us in an unpredictable and, sometimes, tragic and difficult world. 

This account will raise questions about whether we can earn our salvation, how we should think about the sovereignty of God, and many more. I’ll return next week to continue with an examination of this potential picture. 

To contribute to The Walk, email opinions and columns editor Conner Evans at opinions@thecollegianur.com.

Contact columnist Cal Pringle at cal.pringle@richmond.edu. 

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