Theodicy

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.

Walk humbly now. Do justly now. Love mercy now.

You are not expected to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

-various religious sources including the Pirkei Avot and Micah

Theodicy is an attempt to resolve the problem of evil: how could a good God permit so much evil in creation?

Theodicy is hard. It is also important, irrespective of one’s religious beliefs. Theodicy helps us think about good and evil in general and concrete terms, as well as suffering and our obligations to alleviating it.

If we think of evil as the absence of good, then any moment we are not doing maximally good things, we are committing evil, or at least permitting it. Knowing the immense suffering that exists in the world, and how much time we waste not trying to end it, brings a huge moral and emotional burden, and one that is difficult to escape without in some sense rationalizing evil. Even our acts of kindness and charity fail to be maximally good, and let thousands starve even when we go and feed the few. Our laziness and moments of respite permit so much suffering to remain in the world. Theodicy is hard.

Solving these problems is immensely difficult. It is also very much an academic exercise in philosophy, and does little to actually do good. We must act if we want a better world, because talk and thought experiments are not real solutions. Yet choosing the right course of action is even more difficult. Countless revolutions have been built on a deep desire to alleviate suffering, and have led to the massacres of millions. Arguments against revolutionary principles and for the status quo, on the other hand, have also been used to perpetuate enslavement and violence against multitudes. It is clear much work must be done, but thus far every such grand attempt has led to grand failures. Whatever progress we have made has been slow and difficult, and there is still so much suffering left in the world. Theodicy is hard.

I don’t have any good answers here. All I know is to keep trying, and know that I will fail in immense ways. Much of life is this tension between reality and the impossible perfection we desire. It is clear we can work towards a better world, but damn is it hard work.


Many people have written far deeper and more comprehensive discussions of these ideas and their implications. This is just the tip of the iceberg. These thoughts have been largely inspired by reading UNSONG, though I’ve struggled with the issues for the better part of my life. As a work of fiction that tackles very difficult philosophical problems, I would highly recommend UNSONG. I would also recommend 80,000 hours for advice about careers that make a difference in the world, and the Effective Altruism movement (such as giving what we can) to try and find very high impact charitable opportunities.

Thanks for listening. I’ll be back to mathematics soon.

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