I struggled with some demons, they were middle-class and tameI didn't know I had permission to murder and to maim
-- Leonard Cohen, "You Want It Darker"
And Cain said: Truly I am Mahan, the master of this great secret, that I may murder and get gain. . . . And Cain gloried in that which he had done, saying: I am free.
-- Selections from the Book of Moses 5:31, 33
In Joseph Smith's retelling of the Genesis story, Cain feels that as a murderer he has become privy to a "great secret," that he had discovered a hidden truth which others could never guess. What was it? I don't think it was the fact that it is physically possible to commit murder; Abel slaughtered animals, and it hardly requires much extrapolation to realize that one might also slaughter men. No, Cain was using the word may in the sense approved by grammatically strict mothers; his great secret was that he was allowed to murder, that God had given him permission.
"But Cain was punished!" you say. Yes, he was punished -- but not prevented. Imagine watching one of your own sons conceive, plan, and carry out the murder of his brother -- "for these things are not hid from the Lord" (Moses 5:39) -- and doing absolutely nothing to intervene or prevent the crime. Sure, you could later punish your murderous child by kicking him out of the house, but wouldn't you still be guilty of allowing the murder to happen in the first place? Isn't this precisely the accusation that the Problem of Evil crowd level against God himself -- and aren't they right?
Sartre's famous paraphrase of Dostoevsky has it that "if there is no God, all is permitted." Actually, we can dispense with the conditional clause. All is permitted. That is an observed fact. This is a Wild West universe. There is no imaginable atrocity that humans are consistently prevented from committing. If there is no God, that makes sense, since there is no one with the power to do so -- just us humans with our various forms of imperfectly executed vigilante justice. If there is a God, though, the observed fact that all is permitted requires some explaining.
The philosophical Problem of Evil is divided into the questions of natural evil (earthquakes, disease, and such) and moral evil. If we reject the Supergod doctrine, the problem of natural evil is tractable; we live on earth in order to learn, and painful experiences can be a teaching tool. Just as schools are not designed to be maximally pleasant for students, this world is not so designed for us; but it is still "the best of all possible worlds" in terms of what it is designed for.
The problem of moral evil is more complicated because it is by definition not God's will, not really "the best" for God's purposes. Moral evil is that which is destructive of the Good; otherwise it would not be moral evil. It would have been better if Cain had not murdered Abel. Any normal human being who saw Cain trying to murder Abel would try to intervene and stop him if he had the power -- but God didn't, and doesn't.
"Free will" is generally the explanation given for this. Goodness is only meaningful if it is freely chosen over evil, which means evil must be a possible choice. Is it really necessary to allow us to do such extremely evil things, though? Couldn't we all, like Leonard Cohen in the song, just struggle with some demons that are middle-class and tame? It's perfectly possible to go choose to go to hell by, say, being lazy, spreading malicious gossip, looking on a woman to lust after her, or saying unto thy brother "Thou fool!"; is it really so important that people also be able to choose to go to hell by raping children or committing serial murders? So long as we're free to choose heaven or hell, isn't that freedom enough? Is there really any compelling reason for us to have "permission to murder and to maim"?
Even if we consider freedom to be so important that it trumps all other considerations, it is a truism of basic political philosophy that freedom is not maximized when do what thou wilt is the whole of the law. If respect for Cain's free will requires that he be allowed to murder Abel, what about Abel's own free will? He presumably intended to go on living and doing this and that, but his freedom to do so was taken away by Cain. If people are allowed to do whatever they choose, one of the things some of them will choose to do is to force their will on others. We humans protect our liberty by making and enforcing laws; why doesn't God do the same?
Yes, I know that in theory God does make and enforce laws, but the laws have a strangely optional quality. "And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord," said Joshua, "choose you this day whom ye will serve" (Josh. 24:15). Jesus said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). What kind of commandment is it that you only have to obey if it seems like a good idea to you, or if you love the person who is commanding you? Human laws don't work that way, and if they did, they would not be effective in protecting our liberty. "Cain," Joseph Smith tells us, "loved Satan more than God" (Moses 5:18), which I suppose is why he was allowed to kill Abel.
God's "enforcement" of his commandments -- posthumous damnation -- also has little in common with law enforcement as we understand it. In human law enforcement, the primary purpose of punishment is prevention. Executing or incarcerating a criminal is intended to prevent that particular criminal from offending again, and punishment of any kind also serves to deter would-be criminals in general by making crime less appealing. We punish theft because if we didn't, there would be a lot more theft. Yes, there's also an element of abstract "justice" or "giving them what they deserve," but if that were the whole story, societies with a widespread belief in hell or karma would feel no need to punish criminals themselves, knowing they would inevitably get their comeuppance anyway.
God's punishment, in stark contrast, seems deliberately calculated to have as little deterrent effect as possible. As I expressed it elsewhere, back when I was an atheist:
It's like giving a very young child rules to follow -- but the only punishment for violating them is that the child will be written out of his parents' will if he breaks any of the rules -- unless, of course, he sincerely apologizes at any point before his parents' death. Nothing is done at the time of the violation, not even an angry reprimand and a reminder of the standing threat of disinheritance. This is obviously not an effective way of enforcing one's demands, not the method that would be chosen by anyone with any understanding of human nature.
Let me say that again: God's goal appears to be to punish sins specifically in such a way that it does not unduly deter people from sinning. This is extremely counter-intuitive from the standpoint of human justice, but I think it is undeniable. It is in fact a commonplace of apologetics that the reason God does not make his existence obvious is because doing so would diminish our free will, giving us no real choice but to obey him, just as you have no real choice but to obey the law when an armed policeman is standing right there looking at you.
The closest thing to this in human law enforcement would be something like a speed trap or sting operation, where the presence of the police is deliberately concealed in order to make people feel safe breaking the law. When this is not done merely to generate revenue from fines, its purpose is to catch and punish people who are already breaking the law but might not otherwise be caught. The larger purpose is still deterrence -- to make people afraid to break the law even when no police appear to be present. None of these purposes would make sense if ascribed to God.
The conclusion to draw from all this is that what we refer to as divine "law," "commandment," and "punishment" are fundamentally different from their human counterparts, and their goals are not the goals of human systems of justice. What God does is not the same as what human law attempts to do; if it were, human laws that duplicate divine laws (e.g. those against murder, theft, etc.) would be redundant and unnecessary. Why create imperfect human systems to enforce laws that are already being enforced with perfect justice by God? The answer is that God and humans "forbid" and "punish" in different ways, for different purposes. Specifically, God -- who could easily have saved Abel's life -- does not generally protect people from becoming victims of the evil actions of others.
What is God's goal, then? To restate the paradox in the form of a dialogue:
A: Why does God give us "commandments" but fail to enforce them, instead allowing us to do whatever we want, no matter how terrible?B: Because human free will must be preserved. We must be allowed to choose good or evil without coercion.A: But one of the things God allows us to do is to enslave and coerce others. Why would he allow that if preserving free will is so important?B: True free will -- which is metaphysical, not practical -- lies in the realm of thought, not action, and cannot be taken away by coercion. Physical actions may be restricted or coerced, but the mind remains free. Paul taught that even a slave is free in the sense that matters to God -- spiritually free, free to align himself with Christ or with Satan.A: But that means God could after all enforce his commandments, and prevent us from doing terrible things, without infringing on our free will -- which brings us right back to our original question.
I think B's second point, that free will is primarily metaphysical freedom of thought and does not require freedom of action, must be true; otherwise, God would not allow some people's freedom of action to be so severely curtailed. Therefore, preserving free will must not be the reason God allows moral evil.
So why is moral evil allowed? There are obviously no blanket answers that will apply in every situation, but I think one of the most important principles to keep in mind is that we are here to learn from experience. Joseph Smith said that Adam was cast out of the garden "to learn from his own experience to distinguish good from evil." That would not be possible if the true nature of evil were systematically disguised by God's constantly intervening to prevent its natural effects from playing out. If serving Satan were artificially made to seem safe -- if God always intervened to make sure that nothing seriously bad was ever done -- then no one would be able to learn (from direct experience, or from observing others) the true difference between good and evil.
Why is it so important for us to learn that sort of thing, even at the cost of allowing all sorts of horrendous evil in this world? As Owen Cyclops puts it in this thread, it makes sense only if Heaven is not an "eternal rest" but an active state in which we do things.
[Mormon theology] also makes the things the individual goes through in this life [meaningful] because there's a post-mortal state. Basically, you "keep going" and doing other stuff in a way that isn't just entering a static afterlife. It obviously totally changes the story. I found this interesting because it would mean there really are ways that suffering in this life could be necessary, for you to learn something or something like that. In general, in our classical situation, it's much harder to appeal to this explanation cohesively. . . . [If] we're all going to Heaven, it's more difficult to imagine how extra suffering here will help you there because you're in Heaven. . . . Heaven not being static but being a full-on post-mortal existence where you do things makes lessons learned here applicable.
If we children of God are to grow up -- and surely that is one of the main purposes of incarnation -- innocence must eventually give way to experience. And it must be honest experience, experience of things as they really are, not an artificially sanitized experience maintained by an overprotective God. There must be permission to murder and to maim. God can and doubtless does intervene in particular cases to avert particular calamities as he deems necessary, but what he cannot do is have a general policy of averting all sufficiently horrific calamities. "Truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come; and whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning" (D&C 93:24-25).
Another possible reason all is permitted -- deeper, if harder to accept -- is that our ultimate destiny is creative and therefore not predetermined. "It doth not yet appear what we shall be" (1 Jn. 3:2). Nothing can be categorically ruled in advance to be a dead end, and so all paths must remain open.