Arguing About Evil: What’s the Problem?

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 10, 2009 in Problem of Evil

Part 2 of my series Arguing About Evil.

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Last post: If God wants to prevent evil and is able to prevent evil, then why is there so much evil in the world? Maybe God doesn’t exist. But can this problem be made into a good argument for atheism? Let’s look at what contemporary philosophy has to say.

This post: There are both logical and evidential arguments from evil. Questions we’ll consider include: Can a sound logical argument from evil be found? Are there any good reasons God would permit so much evil? If we can’t think of any good excuses for God to allow evil, does this mean there aren’t any? Is God really able to create a world with less evil?

Debate on the problem of evil on theist and atheist blogs tends to focus on theodicies – possible reasons why God allows so much evil to occur. Perhaps God allows evil because a planet with beings who can freely commit both good and evil is better than a planet of robots (the free will theodicy). Or maybe God permits evil because it builds our character (the soul-making theodicy).

But theodicies are only one part of today’s philosophical debate over the problem of evil. Let’s take a moment to clarify the issues about which philosophers argue when considering the problem of evil.

Two families of arguments

Philosophers don’t argue about the “problem” of evil. They discuss various arguments from evil against the existence of God.

There are two sets of arguments from evil. The first set contains logical (or “deductive” or “a priori”) arguments from evil. The second set contains evidential (or “inductive,” “empirical,” “probabilistic,” “a posteriori”) arguments from evil.

But every argument from evil depends on precise logic, and every argument from evil depends on at least one evidential premise: namely, that evil exists. So what is the difference between logical and evidential arguments from evil?

I like the distinction made by Daniel Howard-Snyder:

…we can think of a “logical argument from evil” as one which has a premise that says God and some known fact about evil are incompatible, and we can think of an “evidential argument from evil” as one that lacks such a premise.1

Another way to put this is that a logical argument from evil claims that since evil exists, it is impossible that an all-powerful, all-good God exists. An evidential argument from evil claims that given all the evil in the world, it is very improbable that an all-powerful, all-good God exists.

If a logical argument from evil succeeds, then theism is done for. If an evidential argument from evil succeeds, then theism might still be plausible if probabilistic arguments for God can be shown to outweigh the strength of the argument from evil.

Issues in the contemporary debate

  • Mackie provided the standard formulation of the logical argument from evil, but Plantinga and others undermined it. Can an impregnable logical argument from evil be found?
  • Even if evil counts as strong evidence against God, does the total evidence still make theism probable?
  • Even if evil provides propositional grounds against belief in God, can the theist show he has stronger non-propositional grounds for belief in God?
  • Do we know of a plausible justifying reason for God to allow evil, a theodicy?
  • The evidential argument claims that God is improbable, but under what concept of probability? Statistical probability? Epistemic probability? What other issues lurk here?
  • There seem to be particular evils for which we know of no possible justifying excuse to get God off the hook. But can we infer from this that there is no justifying reason for God to allow them?
  • Perhaps classical theism is a poor explanation for a world filled with evil. But is theism really in the business of explaining anything?
  • Arguments from evil assume that God could have made the best of all possible worlds – one with the most good and least evil. But how do we know this isn’t the best of all possible worlds? Or, what if there is no “best” of all possible worlds?

That is just a sketch of the topics we will cover in this series.

Next: Mackie’s logical argument from evil.

  1. The Evidential Problem of Evil, page xiv. []

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{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

dan n August 10, 2009 at 9:21 am

very interesting series. based on your excellent presentation of information in your other series, and the intellectual honesty evident particularly in certain posts, i have no doubt you will provide us an even-handed and well-thought-out presentation of the state of the debate surrounding the existence of evil.

i can’t speak for others, but i know at least MY intellectual life is enriched by your work on this blog. (and also sometimes by those who comment.) keep up the great work, luke. :)

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lukeprog August 10, 2009 at 9:31 am

Thanks, dan!

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Ryan August 10, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Plantinga undermined the problem of evil?

I’m not sure what you are talking about, but I assume that it is Plantinga’s “transworld depravity” argument.

Some atheists have responded to the free will problem by saying that God could have created a world in which free beings always choose the right thing. Plantinga responds that maybe human beings are sinful (to some degree) in all possible worlds. Therefore providing a plausible (though not proven) response to the atheist’s response to free will theodicy.

I think if you accept Libertarian free will then this defense is about as plausible as its negation.

But I don’t accept libertarian free will and I don’t believe free will explains all evil anyway. So the argument, though very insightful, doesn’t cut it (in my judgement).

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Daniel August 10, 2009 at 6:43 pm

Plantinga very much undermined the logical problem of evil, to the point where it has been effectively abandoned by academia.

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Daniel August 10, 2009 at 6:44 pm

Make that logical *argument*, not *problem*.

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toweltowel August 10, 2009 at 9:46 pm

Ryan, all Plantinga needs is a possible scenario, not an actual one. So to leverage your skepticism about e.g. libertarian free will into a criticism, you’d need to say something about the very possibility of libertarian free will.

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toweltowel August 10, 2009 at 9:50 pm

Daniel, actually there are some attempts to revive the logical argument from evil. Richard Gale and Jordan Sobel, off the top of my head, defend it. Also there are still some serious doubts about Plantinga’s solution: see e.g. the paper on “transworld sanctity” by Daniel Howard-Snyder and John Hawthorne.

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Chuck August 10, 2009 at 9:52 pm

I, for one, am very interested in this series.

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Dace August 10, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Raymond Bradley has a thorough and sometimes entertaining reply to Plantinga on Internet Infidels: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/raymond_bradley/fwd-refuted.html

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Karl August 10, 2009 at 11:25 pm

I was going to mention Raymond Bradley’s reply also (linked by Dace above) and was wondering if there has yet been a counter-refutation of his arguments? I ask because I think Bradley poked enough holes in Plantiga’s arguments to render them relatively ineffective.

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Derrida August 10, 2009 at 11:41 pm

The philosophers Quentin Smith and Richard La Croix defend modern versions of the logical argument from evil. Link:
 
http://www.qsmithwmu.com/a_sound_logical_argument_from_evil.htm
 
I can’t find La Croix’s argument online, but it can be found in “The Impossibility of God”:
http://www.amazon.com/Impossibility-God-Michael-Martin/dp/1591021200/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1249976491&sr=1-1
 

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Steven Carr August 11, 2009 at 1:14 am

‘There are both logical and evidential arguments from evil.’

Presumably then, you are not allowed to use any logic in the evidential arguments from evil, and you are not allowed to use any evidence in the logical arguments from evil.

Are there any logical arguments to prove that Homo sapiens have two legs?

Plantinga would scoff at the very idea that because our memory and senses tell us that we have two legs, it is logically impossible for Homo sapiens to be a unipedal species.

After all, it is logically possible our memory and senses are deceived about how many legs we have, just like most people are deceived about how many legs a millipede has.

We just need a logical possiblity , cry the Plantinga supporters and your arguments are busted.

It is not sound! It is not sound!, they say.

So we wave goodby to any idea that the following is a logical argument.

1) Our memory and senses tell us we have two legs

2) Therefore, we do not have just the one leg.

This argument is totally busted, using Christian apologetics, as perfected by Plantinga and Craig.

Next, a proof that an infinite number of angels can dance on the head of a pin.

That is the sort of desperate sophistry Plantinga is reduced to.

Why bother arguing with somebody like Plantinga whose arguments can be used to show that it is ‘logical’ to believe that people only have one leg.

Once Plantinga produces arguments which cannot be used to support the idea that we only have one leg, then he can be allowed to rejoin the debate.

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Steven Carr August 11, 2009 at 4:20 am

I wonder if God would ever allow real evil to happen.
 
For example, would God ever allow Biblical writers to write an error?
 
If God can prevent certain types of evil, such as a Biblical writer getting the name of Jehu’s father wrong, then why can he not prevent 6 million Jews being killed in the Holocaust?

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lukeprog August 11, 2009 at 5:39 am

toweltowel: yup, those will all be part of this series as well!

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lukeprog August 11, 2009 at 5:44 am

Carr, did you read my explanation of the difference between logical and evidential arguments from evil? I explicitly noted the linguistic objection you made with the second sentence of your first post, and answered it.

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Antiplastic August 11, 2009 at 6:22 am

Just as a point of clarification, aren’t you entirely agnostic about the existence of evil that forms the crucial premise in LPOE and EPOE? Or is this problem, as you said in the first post, one that is “huge” and that one “doesn’t need to be a philosopher to be able to see”? From where I sit, the photo of the starving children seems dispositive of the issue.

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lukeprog August 11, 2009 at 7:02 am

Antiplastic,

No, I’m not agnostic about the existence of evil that undermines theism. I think the abundance and degree of evil in the world presents a very strong probabilistic argument against the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God.

But, I’m not sure whether there is a sound logical argument from evil.

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Steven Carr August 11, 2009 at 8:06 am

I did note that. Let us hope that theists remember that we are allowed to use evidence in a logical problem of evil, and allowed to use logic in an evidential problemm of evil.
 
What is a ‘sound’ logical argument?
 
99.9% of people in the world say the following is a sound logical argument.
 
1) My memory and senses tell me that almost all humans have two legs
2) Therefore, Homo sapiens is a bipedal species.
 
Is that a sound logical argument?

lukeprog:
Carr, did you read my explanation of the difference between logical and evidential arguments from evil? I explicitly noted the linguistic objection you made with the second sentence of your first post, and answered it.

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antiplastic August 11, 2009 at 8:37 am

That was meant to be a reference to the previous thread where you claimed (and I doubted) you did not know which things are evil and which things are good. But I agree now that the abundance and degree of evil in the world is so obvious as not to admit of denial

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lukeprog August 11, 2009 at 8:38 pm

Steven Carr: 1) My memory and senses tell me that almost all humans have two legs 2) Therefore, Homo sapiens is a bipedal species. Is that a sound logical argument?

No, it’s not. Did you mean sound deductive argument? It could be taken as a strong inductive argument, though.

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Steven Carr August 11, 2009 at 9:29 pm

I asked if it was a sound logical argument, not a strong logical argument.

Plantinga never considers if the LPOE is strong or not, only if it is sound.

Can strong inductive arguments ever be ‘sound’ in the sense that Plantinga uses the word?

So we cannot deduce from the fact that our memory and senses tell us that almost  every person has 2 legs that Homo sapiens is a bipedal species?

Is Plantinga’s argument against the Logical Problem of Evil simply a claim that the LPOE starts with a contingent fact (the existence of evil) and no sound deductive arguments start from contingent facts?

This is tantamount to claiming that you cannot use evidence in a logical argument, just as you cannot deduce that people have two legs from the evidence of your eyes.

Once Plantinga produces a defense against the LPOE that can not also be used to deny that Homo sapiens are bipedal, then he can be allowed to return to the debate.

Until then, he is just engaging in sophistry.
 

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Steven Carr August 11, 2009 at 9:37 pm

LUKE
The first set contains logical (or “deductive” or “a priori”) arguments from evil.

CARR
SO logical arguments for evil *have* to be ‘deductive’ , even though Luke claims the following is an *inductive* logical argument :-

1) My memory and senses tell me that almost all humans have two legs 2) Therefore, Homo sapiens is a bipedal species. Is that a sound logical argument?

Why do logical arguments from evil *have* to be deductive?

Luke claims *evidential* arguments are inductive. 

But theists simply hide behind the nomenclature, refuting logical problems of evil the way Luke refuted the claim that the evidence of our eyes lets us deduce that Homo sapiens are bipedal, and refuting evidential arguments by claiming they are not logically sound deductive arguments and so can be ignored.
 

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Rups900 August 12, 2009 at 5:40 am

Hey all, esp. Derrida,
Having recently looked at Smith’s argument myself, Alex Pruss’s response may be of interest (it’s the only published response I’m aware of): http://bearspace.baylor.edu/Alexander_Pruss/www/papers/DivinePerfection.html
Cheers

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lukeprog August 12, 2009 at 5:41 am

Carr,

As far as I know, ‘soundness’ is a property of deductive arguments, but ‘strong’ can be a property of inductive arguments.

The argument from memory and senses to conclusion about Homo Sapiens is not deductive, no. It is inductive or abductive.

I’ll get to Plantinga’s argument later in this series…

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Chuck August 12, 2009 at 9:04 pm

1. If evolution is true, it entails a level of suffering in the Creation that is incompatible with the idea of the Christian god.
2. Evolution happened.
3. Therefore, the Christian god does not exist.

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Steven Carr August 14, 2009 at 3:12 am

LUKE
The argument from memory and senses to conclusion about Homo Sapiens is not deductive, no. It is inductive or abductive.
 
CARR
But is it a logical argument? 99.9% of the world would say that it is a logical argument to go from saying that our memory and senses tell us we have two legs, to claiming that Homo sapiens have two legs.
 
If Plantinga is going to strike out those sorts of arguments as not being logical arguments, then I am not going to take him seriously.

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lukeprog August 14, 2009 at 4:19 am

Carr,

In the case of the problem of evil, the terms “logical argument” and “evidential argument” have very specific meanings which acknowledge the fact that both must be logically valid and use at least one evidential premise.

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Silver Bullet August 16, 2009 at 6:50 pm

Luke,
 
1. After reading this, I still don’t understand the difference between the logical and evidential arguments. Given the distinction quote from Howard-Snyder, can you give an example of an evidential argument?
 
2. The “as long as it is possible that God has benevolent reason(s) for permitting evil” argument is no argument at all. You can argue anything that way. For example, “as long as it is possible that Hitler had benevolent reason(s) for the holocaust, then there is no logical problem with the notion that Hitler was good, and not evil. No, believers must show that God exists and that he does have benevolent reasons for permitting evil. All they can do is assert that God is good, and from there, their reasoning is circular. God must have benevolent reasons for permitting evil because he is good. I can’t understand how anybody could be moved by the ALA it is P line of argument. That’s “common sense” to me.

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lukeprog August 16, 2009 at 8:05 pm

Silver Bullet,

1. Is my second definition easier? A “logical argument from evil” is one that would PROVE atheism. An “evidential argument from evil” would merely make atheism PROBABLE.

2. I agree.

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Silver Bullet August 16, 2009 at 9:04 pm

lukeprog: Silver Bullet,1. Is my second definition easier? A “logical argument from evil” is one that would PROVE atheism. An “evidential argument from evil” would merely make atheism PROBABLE.

To me, the problem of evil, as posed by Hume, is a logical problem: the incompatibility of the presence of evil and an omnipotent/omnibenevolent god is precisely the problem. So, I need to see what the evidential arguments are to understand them better in light of the way that I interpret the POE.

Sam Harris has written that we should consider the POE solved: god is either impotent or evil. I agree with him.

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Silver Bullet August 16, 2009 at 9:07 pm

I neglected to add to Sam Harris’ conclusion that god is either impotent, evil, or non-existent.

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Steven Carr September 18, 2009 at 3:54 am

LUKE
In the case of the problem of evil, the terms “logical argument” and “evidential argument” have very specific meanings which acknowledge the fact that both must be logically valid and use at least one evidential premise.

CARR

And you claim the following is not a logically valid argument.
A) My memory and senses tell me that most people I have seen have two legs
B) Therefore , Homo sapiens is a bipedal species.

So Christians have defined ‘logical argument’ such that we are no longer allowed to deduce how many legs we have from the evidence of our eyes.

Is the following a logically valid argument?

Jesus was seen to have risen from the grave. His body was touched and he ate bread.

There was no body in the grave.

Therefore Jesus died and rose again.

If atheists started claiming this is not a logically valid argument, because there is a logical possibility that the insides of Jesus had been replaced by animatronics, enabling the corpse of Jesus to move and eat, then Christians would rightly start laughing.

So why am I not allowed to laugh at Plantinga?

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lukeprog September 18, 2009 at 4:48 am

Carr,

You are allowed to laugh at Plantinga.

However, your example is an inductive argument, which is not capable of being valid or invalid. See Intro to Logic 008.

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Steven Carr September 18, 2009 at 7:03 am

So the Logical Problem of Evil has never been proved to be invalid, or at least it is just as ‘invalid’ as claims that there are logical arguments to accept that people have 2 legs, even though I have only seen a tiny minority of all people?

If Plantinga can only reduce the LPOE to something as strong as the claim that there is a logical argument for us having 2 legs, then he has hardly weakened it.

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drj September 18, 2009 at 8:32 am

I really do get a kick out of the PoE, and the PoSuffering as well, and the conversations that follow… by the end, the omni-capable god is the most impotent all powerful being one could imagine.

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Kip September 18, 2009 at 9:44 am

drj: I really do get a kick out of the PoE, and the PoSuffering as well, and the conversations that follow… by the end, the omni-capable god is the most impotent all powerful being one could imagine.

The best response for the theist is to keep the “all-powerful” part, but change the “all-good” part to allow for us to judge God’s actions as “bad”, but say we have a limited perspective of God’s grand plan or some such. In other words, God is not “omni-benevolent” from our point of view.

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lukeprog September 18, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Carr,

I think you’re totally confusing induction, deduction, logical evil arguments, evidential evil arguments, logic, and evidence. Perhaps I’ll need to make a post to clarify the issues once again – other people may be having the same problems.

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Steven Carr September 20, 2009 at 12:16 pm

So I am confusing the claim that because we can see people have two legs , then people have two legs, with a logical argument?

99.999% of the entire world would claim the following is a logically valid argument :-
1) I can see that almost everybody has 2 legs
2) Therefore, people have 2 legs.

Christian apologists love to confuse people by saying the above argument is NOT a logical argument.

Why should they be allowed to get away with such sophistry?

Why should Christian apologists be allowed to remove all evidence from the logical problem of evil,and all logic from the evidential problem of evil, and then claim that people are ‘totally confused’ if they try to use logic when talking about the evidential problem of evil or try to use evidence when talking about the logical problem of evil?

Are we allowed to say the following is NOT a logical argument?

1) Jesus was seen to rise from the tomb, eat food and be touched
2) Therefore Jesus rose from the dead.

According to Christian apologists, this is not a logical argument, because there is a logical possibility that aliens replaced the insides of Jesus’s body with animatronics.

So if this argument about Jesus’s resurrection is not a logical argument, presumably atheists can just reject the resurrection, as Christians cannot produce a logical argument for the resurrection of Jesus.

Of course, if atheists really did that and claimed the above argument for the resurrection of Jesus was NOT a logical argument, nobody would take them seriously.

So why should we take Plantinga’s ‘saving the appearances’ defense seriously?

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lukeprog September 20, 2009 at 5:33 pm

Steven Carr: 99.999% of the entire world would claim the following is a logically valid argument :-
1) I can see that almost everybody has 2 legs
2) Therefore, people have 2 legs.

If so, then those billions of people are simply wrong. Sorry. That’s the way it is. That is an inductive argument, and is thus not capable of being valid or invalid.

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Steven Carr October 3, 2009 at 5:47 am

So we can simply claim Christians are not producing logical arguments when they say that Jesus was resurrected, because the tomb was empty and people saw him and touched him.

That will go down well…..

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Jeremy September 5, 2010 at 9:45 pm

If God wants to prevent evil and is able to prevent evil, then why is there so much evil in the world. Ask yourself this who is God. God is “An all powerful, all knowing, and loving deity.” Who caused the evil? Satan and man. Man sinned and threw everything into chaos Who is responisble for fixing this mess? We are. Why is God always obligated to help when he didnt even cause all of this? God gave us freedom of choice, and we chose sin. God provided a way out for those who believe in him and he helps those who belive in him; not always in the way we want. Granted I’m not a college student with straight A’s, I’m not good at english, and I am definitely not good at debate. If I cant convince you with my actions then my words mean nothing to you.

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Jeremy September 5, 2010 at 9:51 pm

“Another way to put this is that a logical argument from evil claims that since evil exists, it is impossible that an all-powerful, all-good God exists. An evidential argument from evil claims that given all the evil in the world, it is very improbable that an all-powerful, all-good God exists.” As I said in my other post God didnt cause all the evil, we did. Why didnt God prevent it? Heres a better question; does he have to? Does he say in the bible that he was going to prevent all the evil?

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JJ VanHican September 28, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Maybe ‘evil’ is merely ‘imperfection’. If a human’s brain develops imperfectly, that might lead to acts of evil. Maybe certain types of imperfections lead to certain types of evil acts. Maybe widespread STDs in Africa contribute to widespread evil/imperfect socio-economic conditions. Maybe alcohol contributes to widespread imperfect brain development in ‘the west’ where there is less graphic but still widespread evil/imperfect society. Why was that 50% off yesterday, oh, because you are so imperfect you cannot comprehend the evil of selling something for different prices to different people. Itsa big picture, yes/no?

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