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Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People?
Five philosophers offer their opinions.
We asked young people what their most burning philosophical questions are. In order to answer them, we went and asked some of today’s leading thinkers.
Q: Why do bad things happen to good people?
- Sara, 30
James Tartaglia, Keele University, UK
Bad things happen to good people because society isn’t fair, and nature isn’t fair. So, a good person might lose their job and end up homeless because society isn’t fair, and a good person might get terminal cancer in the prime of their life because nature isn’t fair. We can work on both. With politics, philosophy, and religion, we can make society more fair, and with science and technology, we can make nature more fair.
Matt Schneeweiss, The Stoic Jew Podcast
Imagine you’re playing chess with your friend when a stranger walks up to you, looks at the board, and exclaims, “You just made a bad move!” If this stranger were a skilled chess player, their comment might be helpful, but what if they confessed to you that they don’t know how to play chess? In order to even speak of “a bad move,” one would need to have three types of knowledge: (1) the rules of chess – or how to play; (2) the strategy of chess—how to differentiate between “good” and “bad” moves; and (3) knowledge about this particular game—who made which moves, and when. Similarly, before we can even ask the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” we must gain a firm and thorough knowledge of three subjects: (1) how God governs the universe—the laws of nature and the laws of providence; (2) a true understanding of morality—what, exactly, do we mean by “good” and “bad,” in both human conduct and divine conduct; and (3) knowledge about the particulars—who is this person, which decisions have they made throughout their entire lives, and whether God did, indeed, cause this harm to befall this person.
Miriam Kosman, Author
If you have this question, you are in excellent company along with Moses, Jeremiah, Job, etc.—and none of them got an answer in their lifetime. Apparently, this is not a question that a human being with finite vision can answer. But one thing is clear: we tend to think of life as a pleasure machine—life is supposed to be pleasurable, and when it’s not, we are consistently surprised and feel betrayed. Well, let’s face it; if life was a pleasure machine, it’s an incredibly defective machine. But if life is a growth stimulant machine…hmmm, maybe it’s doing an OK job.
Paul Franks, Yale University
As Aristotle remarked, there are at least four senses of the question “why?” If you are asking for the material, efficient, and formal causes of bad things happening to good people, then almost everybody would agree that it is because the material, efficient, and formal causes of the consequences of action—whatever they are—are not automatically connected to ethical considerations. This leads to the question of the fourth kind of cause: what is the purpose of disconnecting the laws of the consequences of action from ethics? If you are an atheist, you need not answer this question since there need be no purpose at all; if you are a theist, then the best answer is that disconnecting the physical world from ethics gives us humans the opportunity and responsibility to stand up for ethics to the extent that we can—which does not make it an easy answer to accept when catastrophically awful things happen.
Grant Maxwell, Author
I don’t think the world can be divided so easily into “good” and “bad” people, which is basically what the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche means with the title of one of his most famous books, Beyond Good and Evil. The Nazis misinterpreted Nietzsche to mean that morality can be cast aside and that “the will to power” is merely a will to dominate. However, as Deleuze suggests, this is only the lowest expression of the will to power, while the task of human life is to express the various powers that constitute our psyche, often imagined as gods, in their higher registers. For Deleuze and his coauthor Félix Guattari, the construction in which a jealous Father God rewards his good children and punishes the bad ones is deeply intertwined with the Freudian Oedipal complex, while for the kind of ethics expressed by Spinoza, Nietzsche, Jung, Deleuze, and Hillman, it’s not only necessary to fulfill one’s obligations and to treat others with kindness and respect, but also to fulfill one’s particular destiny, to express the affective complexes that compose one’s individuality in the most active and creative way possible.
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