Leibniz on Evil

The Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is traditionally understood in terms of the apparent problem of the compatibility of suffering in the world with God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. We’ll look here at how Leibniz addresses two problems—the ‘Underachiever’ problem and the ‘Holiness’ problem—raised specifically by the conception of the created actual world as discussed above.

The ‘Underachiever Problem’

The Underachiever problem asks whether God could really be as described above if the actual world contains evils and other horrors. Surely if God were all powerful and good God would have created a better world.

In one sense Leibniz’s answer here is simple. This (the actual world) is the best of all possible worlds, which is why God created it. The fact that it contains some evils does not show that it is not the best. We know that God creates the best of all possible worlds, remember, because to do otherwise would violate the PSR. God needs some reason to make one world rather than another actual, and could only have such a reason if He were making the best world actual.

To the extent that we reject Leibniz’s conclusion (if we do) it is probably motivated by the thought that the actual world is surely not the best of all possible worlds. Leibniz thinks there are two reasons for our thinking this, which he thinks are ultimately mistaken.

First, though we might think of particular events or instances which could have been better (e.g. a world without the 9/11 bombings), Leibniz thinks that, due to our ignorance of the underlying connections between events, we cannot know whether a genuinely possible world could be constructed that was, all things considered, better, and which lacked just those features (e.g. lacked the 9/11 bombings). In other words, as bad as the events are that have occurred in the acutal world, we have no idea whether a world lacking such events would not in fact be worse.

Second, we also cannot know whether God’s measure of the goodness of the world maps onto our standard of goodness. Perhaps there are things other than human happiness or pleasure that are relevant to assessing the goodness of the world. So objections that stem from the existence of human suffering (or the like) may just be parochial expressions of our own anthropocentric views of goodness.

Surely though, some importance in assessing the goodness of the world must be placed on the issue of the suffering or happiness of human beings (among others). Leibniz himself seems to endorse this in the Discourse on Metaphysics (§36). Leibniz also seems to think that the best world is one which “the simplicity of ways is in balance with the richness of effects” (DM §5). Or, in other words, that the best world is the one that yields the greatest variety of phenomena governed by the simplest set of laws. Assessing just what Leibniz thinks the correct standards are is a source of ongoing interpretive controversy.

The ‘Holiness’ Problem

The Holiness problem stems from the fact that God causally contributes to the existence of everything in the world, and evil is one of those things, which would seem to make God morally responsible for the existence of evil.

The ‘Underachiever’ problem and the ‘Holiness’ problem

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