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Evil. Part one of a 437 part series.

OK, just kidding about the 437 parts. Of course. But what a big topic. Where to begin?

The typical place to begin is the classic “Problem of Evil”, which is usually presented as the philosophical problem to theists like Christians, Jews and Muslims: “How could a all-powerful, good, and loving God allow evil to exist?” This is a vexing problem indeed, and so is the atheist’s analogous “Problem of Good”: “If the world is a product of randomness, why is there so much of this world that makes me want to praise and celebrate it?” Those questions take various forms and are posed with various levels of philosophical sophistication. Whatever our worldview, though, honest experience can lead us to ask the question, “Is this world some kind of sick joke, sometimes making me want to rejoice in its goodness, other times making me want to despair at its terribleness?” NT Wright pointed my attention to a book by Susan Neiman’s, which sounds very interesting. Her claim is that the history of modern philosophy can be told as a story of people coming to grips with evil–why it’s there, whether or not we should study moral evil, and what to do about it. Though the problem of evil presents itself to us in different ways depending on how we view the world, it’s a problem for all of us, because we all deal with evil. Or at least with things we don’t like.

Anyway, those are interesting questions–why do bad things happen, why do we think some things are bad and other people think they’re good, why do we think things are bad or good at all…. but guess what. The rule this week is, let’s avoid those “why does evil exist?” questions. Maybe we’ll come back to that someday. I’d like to address another related question. It’s one that we’re constantly talking about at work, at home, in the political sphere, everywhere–and at the same time, it’s a question that we avoid like the plague. “What do we do about evil?” Not how do we conceptually explain its existence and get our heads around it, but how do we actually respond when evil things happen? How should we respond? What’s a mature way to deal with it? Or, if you prefer not to believe in evil or prefer not to use that work, pick a word that describes those unpleasant things that happen in this world that you object to–whether they be moral problems, natural disasters, or what have you. What to do with this unpleasantness?

So when something bad happens, there are ways that people often respond, and I think they might fall into some general categories. In these simplistic descriptions, it will sound like I’m gently mocking some of them. I am. It doesn’t mean that I agree with the ones I couldn’t come up with a witty description for. I’m not saying these are bad or good. That’s up for discussion. So, when responding to evil, you might:

1. Deny it. You can say that there are no values, good and evil are a construct.

2. Ignore it. This is the approach I find myself taking when I haven’t seen the news in awhile and things in my own life are fine–I just sort of forget that there are child molesters out there, that I can be self-deceptive, and that death is very much a part of life.

3. Dismiss it. This can take many forms, like the “Oh, it’ll all be ok in the end” or “Everything happens for a reason” kinds of responses.

4. Transcend it with human progress. This approach is reflected the cultural assumption and/or assertion that science helps us cure diseases, psychology helps us understand things and will help us live together in peace, and the dance rock of the 80s was so much better than disco.

5. Judge it. Evil is out there. It’s those bad people doing evil things that are the problem.

6. Apologize for it. Evil, it’s all my fault.

7. Accept it. Discomfort and pain are a part of life. The path to peace comes through the path of acceptance.

8. Forgive it. Sometimes, this comes awful close to #3.

Man, there are so many directions we could go with this. We probably will go in most of them. 🙂 I think the overarching questions I want to answer are, “How do you respond when bad things happen? How would you like to respond?” You can tease that out by answering one or more of these:

– What’s right about some of the above approaches?

– What’s wrong about some of the above approaches?

– What’s your natural reaction when you see bad stuff happen on the news?

– What’s your natural reaction when you realize you really hurt somebody? Or if you’ve never hurt someone, how do you respond when confronted with something you really don’t like about yourself?

See you here, or on Thursday!


8 Responses to “Evil. Part one of a 437 part series.”

  1. Oh, man, I love this topic! Too bad I’ll be rocking Ohio this week. Not that one really ‘rocks’ Ohio. Can someone bring up the idea that not all morality is black & white? I’m a relativist in theory, yet I’ve already cast my judgments of the world around me. That is, I don’t think there is an inherent right or wrong, but I have feelings and thoughts that I would deem right or wrong based on my environment and upbringing.

    And here’s a Kansas PS for Emmylou:
    “On a stormy sea of moving emotion
    Tossed about I’m like a ship on the ocean
    I set a course for winds of fortune”

    Carry On My Wayward Son!

  2. I’ve heard that Cleveland rocks.

    We’ll miss you, Anthony.

    “All we are is dust in the wind, dude.” Bill S. Preston, esq. (and Kansas)

  3. I’m still not sure if I will make it tomorrow night for the discussion. I would like to add that I somewhat rather wish that we could include another salient and related dimension to the question “What should we do about evil?” by also asking the question always lurking in our minds: “What should God do about evil?” In other words, asking what *we* should do about evil is an integral part of most theodicies (i.e., theories seeking to justify the coexistence of the traditional theistic God with the reality of gratuitous evil in the world) as part of God’s supposed creation, so why not ask it in the context of what we expect that God should be doing too? Like it or not, inherent in the questions you want to raise about what our reaction is or should be to evil is each person’s belief about where evil comes from and how it is defined. But those ontological questions naturally beg metaphysical questions. It is very difficult (if not impossible) to discuss how I should respond to evil without bringing up my beliefs about what it is and where it came from. That, in turn, will bring up God’s part in all of this (or lack thereof) and perhaps the viability of theism itself.

  4. agnosticus–Yes. That question is extremely relevant. Hope you can make it.

    The question about what God should do (or does) about evil can be different from the question of why God allowed evil in the first place. Both questions are very important. I drew a boundary around the second question (why does evil exist) because I thought focusing on what we’re supposed to do about it, and perhaps by extension, what God should do (or does) about it would help us think about the question in some new ways. We shall see.

    Anthony–I am so bummed; thanks for the rsvp on the meetup site. And yeah, morality isn’t all black and white. It might be completely un-black and white. Wish you were there to support that position.

    Rock on,


  5. Hey I count 7 questions at the end there. You are using words like good, bad, evil, right, and wrong. What might be good to me would probably be bad to you. So how can we have an intelligent conversation if at first we don’t define the words we are going to use in the conversation? If I think driving really fast as long as I don’t hurt anyone is good and you think it is bad simply because the possibility of someone getting hurt may increase, then who is “right” and who is “wrong”? I use this example because of previous training in high speed driving allows me to do things safely that many people could not do safely. What about mountain climbing? Is it safe? The response to that would subjective or simply based on a person by person basis. Back to your main question… How do we respond when bad things happen? How ever you consciously chose to, or how ever your subconscious has been programmed to respond.

  6. What is Evil? Since most christians are always calling my lifestyle evil I would have to ask a more important question? What is good? Once you define good evil by nature would simply be the opposite. However these christians I argue with believe that their god chooses who becomes a chrstian. If this is true then this god chose me not to be one. If he chose me not to be a christian how can he or his “followers” be justified in condemning me? If I do not have the ability to accept him then I cannot be held responsible for rejecting him if he is truly “just”. I really wonder why i would want a “relationship” with a god who chose some be rejected others and then condemns those he rejected.

  7. I come to this discussion extremely late (though I have a hunch no one has really nailed down any answers that satisfy every single person in this group . . . ). I have no answers–or at least none that I feel capable of hashing out in writing at present. But here’s another question, addressed specifically to lawmar:

    It seems to me you are defining “good” and “evil” as “safe” and “unsafe”–or that you are inferring that other people define them that way. Is this the case? And so are you saying that things are therefore good or evil based on whether or not the person committing a certain act is qualified to do it with the least harm to him- or herself, or to others?

  8. Lawmar–I think you can have an intelligent conversation based on those questions even if people have widely varying definitions for evil. Evil has a pretty broad semantic range (it can mean a lot of different things to different people), but it’s not completely limitless. When we talk about evil, most of us are talking about something that is at least bothersome, unpleasant, something that should not be. Even if someone doesn’t believe evil is a good way to describe aspects of the world, it’s still a relevant question: When something happens that is outside your personal categories of how the world should be, how do you deal? Even if the content of what people judge to be evil (driving fast is evil, driving slow is evil, driving fast and slow are neutral, nothing is evil), we can still talk about responding to it. Case in point: Last month’s discussion at Gray’s, we had an intelligent discussion, but we didn’t really define evil. 🙂

    OI8U2–I enjoyed the VH reference and the U2 diss in your screen name. 🙂 Just curious–to whom are you directing your questions to? Are you asking me or someone else to defend the opinions of other people you like to argue with? That’s kind of tricky, since I don’t know those people. There’s a relatively small but diverse group of readers here, and it’s a good place for honest conversation. The more honest and open it is, typically the better it is.

    Jenn–Hi! Thanks for interacting. Hope lawmar responds.

    Sorry, everyone, for neglecting this message board for so long.

    Peace and love–

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