The Problem of Good

You’ve probably never thought about good things as, in some ways, a problem to be pondered. But in our rich Catholic tradition, philosophical and theological reflections alike encourage us never to take anything for granted. Today, Professor Howard Kainz puts things into a Catholic perspective that both enlightens and provokes further thought. He’s a good example of what it is that at The Catholic Thing we do our very best, every day of the year, to bring you: writers and thinkers who are deeply Catholic and write in an accessible form you will not often find elsewhere. Yesterday, we also posted George Marlin’s careful analysis of the Catholic vote in its large historical lines, and a special section with a specific focus on Wisconsin. You can look at both here. Studies of more swing states with heavy Catholic populations will be added to Mr. Marlin’s study shortly. After more than four years at this work, I’m still the biggest fan of our writers and our site. When people ask me why they should support our work, I can only point to what appears day by day as more convincing and eloquent than any mere description. We’ve gotten generous response from some of you to our funding appeals, but in all candor, I know there are still many more of you out there who appreciate this site, and who have not yet contributed. Maybe I’ve failed to convey to you the urgency of our situation. This is going to be a hard, perhaps a crucial year for us. And we cannot continue this work with the support of you, our readers. Please, if you value what you can find here today and everyday, do your part and support The Catholic Thing. – Robert Royal

The number of man-hours spent by philosophers in analyzing and writing about the “problem of evil” would certainly come to an astronomical figure.  I have spent a considerable amount of time on it myself, including the second chapter in my book, The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct. But the problem of good is well-nigh ignored by philosophers. And most people are probably unaware that there is such a problem, and that it is formidable.

In my book, I separate the problem of evil into three subdivisions – natural evils, such as tsunamis and earthquakes; moral evils, such as brutal massacres of innocent persons; and physical/psychic suffering, especially hereditary diseases and handicaps, such as Huntington’s Disease and Sickle-Cell anemia.

The problem of good can be similarly subdivided:

Natural Goods

Certainly to be included in the list are the perennial goods in nature that keep poetry from becoming a dying profession: The beauty of the natural world: awe-inspiring beauties of land and sea, and the infinitely variable loveliness of fauna and flora.

Those of us who are living in the modern age have also benefitted from the awesome scientific discoveries of the last two centuries: opening up for us the intriguing complex harmony of the microscopic world, from quarks to DNA to stem cells; the physical laws which make possible the investigation into the secrets of the cosmos, and even probes of other planets and solar systems; and the marvelous “fine-tuning” of all possible variables after the “big bang,” situating us in a universe that seems to be made for the production and protection of human life, even down to the details of our place in the Milky Way and the solar system.

And in the realm of “everyday” poetry, who can even begin to explain the beauty and innocence of babies and young children, preserved – we hope – by the adults entrusted with their nurturance and upkeep; or the literally stunning beauty of the opposite sex, which can cause occasional “distractions” as well as moments of aesthetic contemplation and, for the lucky ones, the wonders of romantic love, by which unexpectedly a person, ignoring our obvious faults and imperfections, can find us somehow attractive enough to want to spend a life with us.

Moral Goods

Charles Darwin viewed the existence of monstrosities and parasites in organisms as evidence for the random nature of evolutionary developments. But the opposite also needs explanation.  Evolutionary psychologists strain themselves to figure out how “selfish genes” and “memes” and all the chance developments leading to “survival of the fittest” can explain the almost unfathomable love of mothers and fathers – as well as the concern of other persons in our lives who seemed to be impelled as if by an ineradicable instinct to spend themselves for our benefit; and the helping hands willing to extricate us from situations in times of trouble or dire distress (sometimes situations we have ourselves created).

Over and over we hear in the news, and sometimes witness, evolutionarily inexplicable cases of heroic individuals willing to give up their lives to save others – often perfect strangers.

And evolutionary theories about reciprocal and group solidarity help very little in explaining the patience and good humor of the sick, handicapped and elderly, often suffering quietly from painful diseases or serious disabilities.

Physical/Psychic Goods

The extraordinary healings, “remissions,” and cures that doctors, the media, and people at large refer to as “miracles” – natural miracles – offer us evidence of the extraordinary ability life and immune systems have at times to overcome seemingly insuperable challenges.

And let us not forget even the bodily signals of pain or distress without which we would not be able to find a diagnosis and remedy for disturbances in our physique or psyche.

On the psychic level, our lives are essentially sustained by the joys of love and friendship, and the constructive sharing of ideas and ideals that can take place at the right time and place – leading to immeasurable intellectual enhancements.

We might add “transcendent” moments to this list – those rare but welcome surges of joy that arrive unexpectedly, which sometimes can even be religious experiences; but most of all, there’s the overpowering religious realization that, for some strange reason, God himself wanted to share his divine life with us, and was willing even to send his Son to become man, and live and die among us, so that we could, in turn, be divinized.

In sum, while evil gets the lion’s share of free publicity, we children of Adam and Eve have entered into a world with a consciousness of both good and evil.

            On the one side, we encounter Nature with its unpredictable upheavals, and “red in tooth and claw.” In the other, we see the magnificent ordering of physical laws, which led to the existence of humans on a planet with marvelous beauties.

We are shocked by incredible atrocities in the news, confirming the belief, homo homini lupus (“humans are wolves to one another”); but we are also consoled by the unending strange stories of human love and sacrifice by persons who seem to belong, as it were, to a different species.

We puzzle over tragic cases of hereditary diseases and pandemics, which medical science has not been able to combat; but we find equally baffling stories confirming the remarkable human powers of homeostasis.

It is indeed shocking and sad that there is so much evil in the world. But if you think about it, it is strange and exhilarating that there is so much good. In fact, the amount of good is mysterious and has been made even more mysterious by the considerable advances of modern science.

The proper response, even for the melancholic among us, might be to sit down once in a while, forget about our troubles for a moment, and wonder how on earth there is so much goodness.


Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.