The Problem of Good
The book I am currently writing explores God’s providence in relation to randomness and purpose, evil and good. In it, I offer solutions both to the problem of evil and the problem of randomness. But I also address a third, little discussed “problem:” the problem of good.
The problem of evil asks why a loving and powerful God does not prevent genuine evil. The problem of evil, left unresolved, is a serious challenge to those who, like me, believe in God.
The problem of randomness asks how we can believe God acts providentially if truly random events occur. Left unresolved, the problem of randomness is a serious challenge to those who, like me, think God acts lovingly all the time toward all creation.
By contrast, however, the problem of good asks whether we can account well for genuine goodness but deny that a loving and powerful God is the ultimate source of goodness. The problem of good, left unresolved, is a serious challenge to those who do not believe in God.
I do not raise the problem of good to refute or even neutralize the problem of evil or the problem of randomness. To account well for life as we experience it, we must offer a plausible solution to why a loving and powerful God does not prevent genuine evil. And we must explain God’s providential relationship to randomness in the world.
But the problem of good reminds us we also encounter a great deal of goodness, love, compassion, generosity, and cooperation in the world. We sometimes focus so intently on evil we forget the good. To make sense of life, we need to account for both evil and good.
Widespread Goodness in Life
As an example of widespread goodness, take the immense cooperating we do every day. We often cooperate to make better our lives and the lives of others. Cooperation is the means by which a great deal of goodness emerges in day-to-day living.
Today, for instance, I cooperated with my wife and daughters so that we might live relatively good, peaceful, and productive lives. We coordinated efforts when doing household chores this morning so our day might have a positive start. As we traveled to our work and schools, we cooperated with surrounding drivers to make the commute amazingly well-organized. For the most part, our fellow students and colleagues cooperated to complete tasks throughout the day. It’s amazing how much good we can accomplish when we work together! After school and work, we coordinated transportation needs so we could participate in various activities. A few of us fixed an evening meal for the family, while others set the table and later cleared dishes. After relaxing, studying, or doing more chores around the house, we coordinated schedules for the next day. Setting the house temperature, locking the doors, and shutting off lights and computers – for the good of all – we finally headed to bed.
This “day in the life of the Oord family” doesn’t come close to mentioning all the ways we experience goodness. It doesn’t address the significant self-sacrifices many of us make, at some cost to ourselves, to help others enjoy life or evade suffering. When acting to promote well-being, many of us “take one for the team.” We do so to make our lives, the lives of those we know, and even the world better. If we were to list all the ways we act self-sacrificially, the list would be long!
Also important for promoting good are the random acts of kindness many do. While less frequent than coordinated cooperation or planned self-sacrifice, spontaneous acts of generosity are powerful examples of goodness. Random acts of kindness may range from an unexpected compliment to a generous lunch tip to helping a stranger to picking up trash.
If we look for it, we will notice goodness all around. Virtue is far more common than we realize. We take for granted many good things and good deeds, overlooking them. Sometimes we simply need to open our eyes – to become aware – to the ways we are blessed and the ways we bless others.
The Relationship between Goodness and Love
Another way to talk about doing good is to say we love. We love when we promote the well-being of family, friends, and ourselves. We love when we do good to strangers, jerks, and enemies. We love when we treat other creatures well and care for the environment. If love involves acting intentionally, in response to others, to promote overall well-being, there’s a lot of love in the world! Love, rightly understood, involves doing good.
The typical explanation for the ultimate source of goodness – and the explanation I affirm – says that the inspiration, source, or inclination to do good comes from God. In fact, the measure of what is good is God’s own nature. Because God essentially is good, God does good to us and all creation. God’s presence pervades reality, and it prompts us toward goodness. We do good deeds and become good people when we respond well to God.
The problem of good asks if anyone can fully explain the goodness in life without believing in God and assigning some ultimate relationship between God and goodness. If there is no God, in other words, why is there so much cooperation, self-sacrifice, generosity, altruism, and love in the world?
I think the most plausible answer to the problem of good is an appeal to God’s goodness. Other answers do not offer a satisfying ultimate explanation for why we think some things are better than others or why we should seek to do good.