“Evil” is a word much in fashion after 9/11. Bush loves to use it, as in “we will root out the evildoers,” but if he was asked to define the term, I doubt that he’d be able to do it. This isn’t a knock on Bush, because last Thursday three philosophers spent an hour on PBS’s “Philosophy Talk” discussing the nature of evil. Even they didn’t come close to agreeing on an answer.
The two hosts of Philosophy Talk were joined by Peter van Inwagen, a philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame. He said that there is a distinction between “radical evil” and “bad things.” Examples of radical evil are Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, people who are way over at the dark end of the good-bad scale. The things they do are truly horrific, not merely bad—like stealing, parking in a handicapped space, needlessly killing an animal.
It was generally agreed that natural disasters can’t be called “evil,” even the tsunami that killed over 150,000 people. Yet a man or woman who brutally killed just a few people could. The main difference between nature and humankind is that men and women supposedly have free will, while nature just acts, well, naturally. No one gets angry at tectonic plates for shifting and creating an earthquake. But if an evil genius could willfully produce a massive destructive earthquake, the outrage would be incalculable.
Free will, then, seems to be a prerequisite for evil. Absent free will we just have bad things. If a large fir tree fell on my house during a windstorm that would be a bad thing. If someone with a chain saw willfully caused the tree to fall on my house, that would be an evil deed. At least, so argues common sense and the law.
However, the philosophy talkers raised some points that blur the distinction between “natural” and “willful” disasters, especially if you believe in God. Prof. van Inwagen, a Christian, argued that even God, an omnipotent and omnipotent being, can’t know what people will do with their free will. This helps explain why God, who also is considered to be omnibenevolent, created a universe that now contains so much evident evil.
In the Christian view, the progenitors of humankind were given free will and then made bad choices. This caused a separation from God which made things even worse. Now we supposedly have been left to our own devices, which includes evil-doing, while God watches from afar, unwilling or unable to eliminate the bad stuff in our world. We made our own mess, and now we have to deal with it.
There are many problems with this theological premise. If you’ve got a high tolerance for philosophical argument, ponder the “Evil” entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Or as much of it as you can understand, if you’re not familiar with symbolic logic. Here’s an excerpt from the article:
What properties must something have if it is to be an appropriate object of worship, and if it is to provide reason for thinking that there is a reasonable chance that the fundamental human hopes just mentioned will be fulfilled? A natural answer is that God must be a person, and who, at the very least, is very powerful, very knowledgeable, and morally very good.
But if such a being exists, then it seems initially puzzling why various evils exist. For many of the very undesirable states of affairs that the world contains are such as could be eliminated, or prevented, by a being who was only moderately powerful, while, given that humans are aware of such evils, a being only as knowledgeable as humans would be aware of their existence. Finally, even a moderately good human being, given the power to do so, would eliminate those evils. Why, then, do such undesirable states of affairs exist, if there is a being who is very powerful, very knowledgeable, and very good?
What one has here, however, is not just a puzzle, since the question can, of course, be recast as an argument for the non-existence of God. Thus if, for simplicity, we focus on a conception of God as all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good, one very concise way of formulating such an argument is as follows:
1. If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
3. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
4. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
5. Evil exists.
6. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn't have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn't know when evil exists, or doesn't have the desire to eliminate all evil.
7. Therefore, God doesn't exist.
It’s hard to refute this argument. Once we conceive of God as a person who is “very powerful, very knowledgeable, and morally very good,” it’s almost impossible to reconcile the existence of evil with the existence of such a being. This is why I strongly lean in the direction of an impersonal monistic God—One without a second. For if there truly is God and also what is not-God, then the contradictions laid out in 1-7 above are virtually inescapable.
On the Philosophy Talk program it was pointed out that even seemingly natural disasters like earthquakes can be traced back to God. For if God created the universe, He/She/It also created plate tectonics and all the other laws of nature that cause earthquakes to happen. So there is a divine intentionality behind even the “blind” destructive forces of nature, which perhaps is why they often are called “acts of God.”
My personal suspicion is that what we call “bad” and “good” happenings are just that: things that simply happen. They are caused, but the ultimate causes are difficult, if not impossible, to discern. This means that a judgmental word such as “evil” is, as several callers to the program argued, a way of rationalizing feelings of anger and of compartmentalizing people/events that we don’t understand.
Once Osama bin Laden is labeled an “evildoer,” we don’t have to try to comprehend his inner nature. We just have to try to kill him. Yet bin Laden himself calls America evil. One of the hosts of Philosophy Talk observed that half of bin Laden’s message that was released around election time was rantings and ravings, but half made pretty good sense. But if we write bin Laden off as someone qualitatively different from ourselves, evil with no hint of goodness, then he can be objectified as a Satanic thing rather than a Human person.
I don’t use the words “evil” or “bad” very often. If someone asks me about a movie that I didn’t enjoy very much, I’m much more likely to say “I didn’t like it” than “It was bad.” Not liking means that the movie scored low on my personal good scale. It lacked goodness. This is quite different from considering that it reeked with badness.
Plotinus, my favorite Greek philosopher, held that there is nothing but the Good, or God. However, the Good can manifest in an infinity of ways, from One all the way to essentially zero—just as heat ranges from absolute zero to as high as you want to go.
“Cold” isn’t the presence of something; it is the absence of heat. Similarly, my wife and I both believe, along with Plotinus, that “evil” isn’t anything real in itself; it is the absence of good.
Maybe the word itself contains a clue to its meaning. Spell it backward: LIVE. So long as we live, there will be evil. Until we are One.