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Theodicy and Haiti

January 23, 2010

Like me, Leon Wieseltier is skeptical of the view that the Haiti earthquake is a special, if painful opportunity, a gateway to a new era when things will be different…for real this time. He rightly worries that this kind of overambitious thinking can turn quickly to despair, exhaustion, and cynicism, which then become pretexts for inaction. The better attitude is compassion with commitment but without illusion, either positive or negative:

…we must learn to distinguish between meliorative action and millennial action. The struggle against suffering should take place soberly, grimly, with what the poet called a heart for any fate, because it sets out from the prior actuality of suffering. It is born disabused, or it is a misunderstanding.

We arrive at this commonsense conclusion in a roundabout way, via a reflection on theodicy. (Theodicy is the attempt to reconcile the existence of evils, like suffering of innocents, with the existence of God.) Wieseltier submits, quite plausibly, that the earthquake and the ensuing suffering teach no lessons about whether or not God exists. Moreover, the attempt to divine such lessons only distracts from the real issue: suffering, the relief of present and the prevention of future. In the same way, then, relief efforts should proceed with a clear-eyed agnosticism about Haiti’s ultimate destiny.

I agree with each point taken individually, but tying them together is unhelpful and rather confusing. You don’t need to invoke theodicy to argue for aid with realistic aims. Wieseltier makes the interesting, mostly implicit suggestion that the millennial rhetoric is a kind of displaced, secularized theodicy, but whether it is or not is irrelevant to the real case against millennial illusions, namely that they’re counterproductive and dangerous. Most of all, I think that we needn’t hold theodicical thinking wholly apart from our response to Haiti. This is because any theodicy worthy of the name begins in outrage. The suffering of innocents is an obscenity, a deep affront to any reasonable moral order, whether you put God or Human Rights or the Principle of Utility or something else at its center.

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