The Problem of Natural Evil, Charity, and Free Trade

I’ve recently been arguing for the comprehensible beauty of theological fatalism. The standard response to the problem of evil is that evil is the result of human willing: thus the Holocaust or American racism cannot be laid at the feet of an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly benevolent God. But I think this seriously ignores the problem of natural evil.

In a world that is literally full of unexplained and uncontrolled phenomena, there’s something sensible in taking the attitude that God’s will requires submission and respect in the face of suffering. If the best guess you’ve got about the fundamental truths of the universe is that nature (and Nature’s God) is capricious and inexplicable, then your attitude to that caprice is going to matter a lot. Can you love your fate without understanding it? Can you avoid telling just-so stories of desert and blaming the sufferer for her suffering? Non-karmic theological fatalism has the major theme that the world is love-able despite the fact that it is full of mysterious natural atrocities.

The predominance of human-caused evils like genocide and slavery have only rivaled natural evils for a few centuries; the long human time span is overwhelmed with misfortunes that could not be understood or even effectively planned against, only endured. Today, it makes sense to try to give a different account, one that enables intervention and prevention. But that modern perspective is rooted in our relatively limited success in rendering explicable and changeable the tremendous amount of suffering that surrounds us.

And there’s still quite a lot of it. I usually only discuss global poverty in the context of utilitarian arguments for rich-world charity obligations. But in fact there’s good reason to think that these rich-world obligations extend infinitely further to an imnipotent and omniscient God. If I can and should save a child in Pakistan or Nepal by forgoing a cell phone upgrade, think how much greater the obligation would be for an omnipotent God.

In 1990, the global under-five mortality rate was 12.7 million annually. Today it is 6.3 million. Because it’s hard to think in terms of such large numbers, I often describe that change this way: every day in 1990, 34,000 children under five died, mostly from easily-treated poverty-related diseases; today it’s more like 17,000. Nearly half of these deaths are directly attributable to undernutrition; other causes include malaria, diarrhea (from unsanitary water,) and asthma (from dung-based indoor cooking fires.) This is pretty obviously evil.

It is probably the case that the contemporary rich could alleviate much of this through charitable action (although this is significantly less effective than we’d like.) In any case, these child deaths could be attributable to human willing, specifically the inaction of rich countries. Yet, even to the extent that that is true today, humanity has not been rich enough to afford to address poverty-related disease for the vast majority of human history.

While it’s hard to measure historical child mortality, estimates suggest something like 300 to 500 child deaths per 1000 live births in pre-industrial societies. That means the 1/3 to 1/2 of all children born would die before their fifth birthday; this even extends to newly industrializing societies: that’s the rate that was observed in Europe through the 19th Century. For every person born under modern conditions, it’s likely that about 15 were born and died in pre-modern times. So roughly 100 billion people have been born and died before the currently living 7 billion. Probably 30 to 50 billion of them died before their fifth birthday. (It’s somewhat surprising that anyone could believe that their God would deplore abortion, given God’s role in this mass infanticide.)

What’s more, it turns out that even if our newfound global wealth enables charitable alleviation of natural evil, these efforts are themselves quite difficult and expensive, and often have very bad unintended side-effects. Often it seems we are forced to respond to this tremendous evil with very imperfect efforts: gifts tend to be less effective than economic development, and competitive global trade has done more than anything else to reduce under-five mortality.

Here’s a sentence I think most of my readers will reject, but I’m never impressed by their reasons: we’ve never found a compassionate system that is as effective as competitive markets for alleviating the specific evil of child mortality, even if it comes with a host of other evils.

In 1969, China alone had 2.3 million deaths for children under-five. In 2012, only 0.2 million children under-five died. That’s directly attributable to US trade with China. Yet we are frequently reminded of how much disruption and inequality that has caused without celebrating the benefits. These policies are described as “off-shoring” or “exporting American jobs.” It’s almost certainly driven massive domestic inequalities that are currently disrupting our democracies. Yet the role of trade in reducing child mortality strikes me as often ignored in these debates.

This is supposed to be something upon which Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump agree: that we should massively reduce trade with countries like China, not to mention Pakistan, India, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yet those five countries are the ones with the highest child mortality. India and Nigeria alone account for half of the 17,000 under-five deaths each year. Even newly-rich trade-enemy China is still the fifth largest source of child mortality, with twice the under-five mortality rate of most industrialized societies.

Thus, the problem of natural evil strikes me as good evidence that the omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God does not exist; such a God would never force us to choose between the evils of capitalism and the evils of watching our children die. Yet if we truly live in such a tragic world, I doubt we should countenance trade protectionism until we can identify an alternate way to address child mortality.

Second Opinions