The Worst of All Possible Worlds?

by R.P. Nettelhorst

That the world is an evil place seems self-evident. One can demonstrate it by pointing to the latest headlines of war and starvation, crime, worsening test scores, and the Bevis and Buttheading of America.

If God exists, and he is good and all powerful, then why is there so much evil? If you were good and all powerful, is this the world you would create?

The eighteenth century philosopher Voltaire wrote a story called Candide to convince us that there is no God. The main protagonist, a blithering idiot named Candide, careens from disaster to disaster, happily mouthing the phrase learned from his mentor Pangloss that "this is the best of all possible worlds". Voltaire's purpose, of course, is to demonstrate that theists are idiots. If this is the best of all possible worlds, then God is a sadistic pig hardly deserving of our adoration.

Attempts to answer the question of evil traditionally accept the charge that the world is an awful place.

But, is this popularly believed perception an accurate perception? Is evil running rampant and is life barely more than miserable? Why would I even ask such a question? Am I some kind of blind fool? Let's consider.

An article in a recent Scientific American ("The Pursuit of Happiness", by David G. Myers and Ed Diener, May, 1996, pp. 70-72) indicates that 93 percent of the world's population feel happy about their lives as a whole. The percentages of happiness remained constant regardless of income, education, or the place individuals happened to live.

If things are as bad as Voltaire and everyone suggests, then why aren't more people unhappy? Think about your own life. Are you suicidal? Probably not. Chances are, you're pretty comfortable and generally content just now. Think you're unique? Think again. Only a tiny fraction of the human race even thinks about committing suicide, let alone follows through.

The world's population stands at nearly 6 billion. Many think this is a bad thing. But why are there so many people? Have birth rates skyrocketed? Not at all. They are actually going down. So why so many human beings?

Because not so many people are dying. Life expectancy, health, and education levels are all up worldwide. According to CIA statistics (CIA World Factbook) in July 1996 the World population was 5.77 billion. In 1996 0.9 percent of the world population died. That's less than one percent. That's from all causes. Or to put it another way, 99.1 percent of the human race didn't die last year.

So lets consider some obvious implications.

  • The number of people who have died this year because of crime? Less than one percent of the human race.

  • The number of people who have died because of natural disasters? Less than one percent.

  • The number of people who have died because of terrorism? Less than one percent.

  • The number of people who have died because of starvation? Less than one percent.

  • The number of people who have died because of diseases? Less than one percent.

  • The number of people who died as a consequence of war? Less than one percent.

Statistics like those would seem to demonstrate that the world's not quite so awful as we might imagine. (Stopping to consider the last time one heard of a life insurance company going bankrupt might be another bit of evidence.) Certainly there is suffering and evil and doubtless the headlines on today's paper are filled with ugly information. But the real reason the news is almost always bad is because bad is unusual and newspapers and television are interested in novelty.

Consider: do the newspapers or television report on the millions and millions of people who went to work today, did their jobs, came home, kissed their spouses and children and had a quiet evening? Of course not. That would be boring. They'll report on the single whacko who went to his job and machine-gunned all his coworkers. That's interesting.

Humanity is warlike and violent, right? Then why, according to the CIA, is only two percent of the world's gross economic production devoted to defense spending? That means that ninety-eight percent of what the world spends each year is for stuff other than making guns and bombers.

Hard as I try, I have difficulty thinking that this is the worst of all possible worlds.