The Nature of Evil
The notion of evil is complex but usually involves some combination of or interplay between four basic categories, consisting of two sorts of effect and two sorts of cause or origin. The two sorts of effect are suffering and metaphysical evil, and the two sorts of cause are moral and natural evil.
Suffering includes both physical and psychological pain and distress, while metaphysical evil involves facts such as the impermanence of the world and the things in it, and especially human death (for simplicity’s sake, in what follows, the term suffering will generally be used to include metaphysical evil). Moral evil is roughly what the Christian, for example, would call “sin,” the Hindu “p~pa” or “adharma”: deliberate actions, typically of human beings, but sometimes of other creatures or of supernatural beings. Natural evil is the result of the workings of the natural world as left to itself, without outside or supernatural intervention; it involves natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and famines but also individual events such as lightning strikes and sickness. While much if not most discussion in Western traditions of thought has concentrated on the issue of moral evil, other traditions have often been more concerned with the occurrence and degree of suffering and of metaphysical evil. For example, in the Buddhist tradition, Siddhartha was led to give up his life of princely luxury in order to seek enlightenment (the Great Renunciation) when, for the first time in his life, he encountered old age, sickness, and death and realized that suffering (dukkha, which is founded in anicca, “impermanence”) is universal among human beings. In fact, whatever philosophers, theologians, and other thinkers have taken as central, ordinary people in most cultures generally see as problems arising out of the effects rather than out of the causes; in religious terms, especially, it’s the occurrence and quantity of pain and suffering, the cutting short of lives, and so on, that causes people to question their faith.
A further important distinction should be drawn between the view that evil is a positive property or entity in itself and the view that evil is a mere privation or absence of goodness. In different cultures this takes very different forms, ranging from a conceptual distinction between kinds of property to a concrete distinction between the presence of a malevolent, evil supernatural being and the absence of a benevolent one. In whatever form, the distinction is especially relevant to the categories of moral evil and suffering, of course, though it can also be applied to the other two categories. The distinction is important, for those who view evil as something positive are usually thought to be under particular pressure to explain its origin.
Different cultures have developed various accounts of the nature and origin of evil, accounts that perform a variety of functions. These include the provision of psychological comfort in the face of suffering or perceived unfairness and the reconciling of evil with other aspects of the culture’s belief system, especially with religious beliefs; the latter, of course, will generally also encompass the former.
The chief questions asked by cultures throughout the world and over the millennia have centered on two main concerns: first, what are the origin and justification of evil, and second, why is suffering distributed so unfairly? In the Abrahamic religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the first of these concerns generally takes the form of what is known as the Problem of Evil—the apparent inconsistency between the fact that the world contains (a great deal of) evil and the existence of a god who created the world and who has the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and benevolence (in fact, there is a problem concerning the existence and quantity of evil in the world even for those who believe in the existence of benevolent but less than omnipotent, omniscient deities); attempts to resolve this inconsistency are known as “theodicies.” In both cases, the concern is sometimes with the mere existence of evil, sometimes with its quantity, and sometimes with the existence of certain kinds of evil (for example, it might be held that moral evil but not natural evil can be accounted for). With specific regard to moral evil, one can also ask why people are sometimes evil, or why normally good people sometimes do evil things; those who believe that people are inherently evil can ask why that should be. Whereas the Problem of Evil and its polytheistic counterparts are bound up with religious beliefs, the question of individual moral evil needn’t be; it arises for naturalistic psychology too.
The second general concern is with the fact that suffering is so unfairly distributed. Why, that is, do the good or the innocent so often suffer and the bad or guilty so often prosper? Like the various versions of the Problem of Evil, this sort of question is most natural—perhaps only really makes sense—if asked in the context of a view of the world that involves more than just a naturalistic network of causes and effects. One needs to have some reason to suppose that the world shouldn’t contain evil or that suffering should be distributed according to our deserts. Without such suppositions, there is no ground for surprise when we discover that the world isn’t like that.
The Origins of Moral Evil
Here there are two main questions: What is the source of evil in general, and what is the source and nature of evil in the individual person?
With regard to the source of moral evil in general, there are three main views: that human beings are naturally evil, that human beings are naturally good, and that human beings are morally neutral or mixed. The first of these fits naturally with the view that evil is something positive, involving selfish aggression; the second fits with the view that evil is merely negative, an absence of good, so that human evil is the result of our falling away from our original nature; the third is more or less neutral between the two views, though it is most often associated with the former. If the second or third view is accepted, we’re faced with questions such as, Why are some people evil? and Why do people sometimes do evil things? Some cultures respond in terms of outside influences, such as demons and witches, or aspects of the natural world; others appeal to the workings of human psychology.
With regard to the three categories of natural evil, suffering, and metaphysical evil, there are three main views: first, the world came about naturally the way it is, so that the occurrence of natural evil is a brute fact, needing no further explanation; second, the world was created by a malevolent being—a god or other powerful supernatural entity (in other words, natural evil is interpreted as a special kind of moral evil, the result of supernatural intentional acts); third, the world was created by a benevolent being, but the occurrence of natural evil can be reconciled with this.
There are two main ways in which people have attempted to reconcile the occurrence of natural evil with a good creator. The first depends upon the notion that a malevolent being or beings, such as fallen angels or demons, interferes in the world; this is of course similar to the notion that the world was created by such a being. The second involves the claim that it’s impossible to create a world without the possibility of natural evil (that is, necessarily any set of natural laws will sometimes lead to natural disasters; in our world these include floods, disease, and lightning strikes, but in any possible world without these phenomena, there will always be other evils arising out of the particular structure of that world).
With relevance especially to moral evils, there is a reasonably common view, associated in anthropology especially with the name of Franz Boas, that every culture is structured according to its own logic and so has to be understood in terms of that logic. As a methodological tool, this is unexceptionable; in order to understand any culture in itself rather than as viewed from another culture, one must do one’s best to be objective, to get to grips with the culture on its own terms. This approach, central to any scientific endeavor, can, however, slide into the philosophical position that there is no objective truth about cultures and particularly about moral values. In its crudest form, this is of course self-contradictory, for it presents as objectively and universally true the claim that nothing is objectively or universally true. It’s not clear, though, that a consistent form of relativism can be developed, as it can be argued that any relativized notion of truth or morality depends for its meaning on a nonrelativized notion.
The Origins of Natural Evil, Suffering, and Metaphysical Evil
There are three main kinds of explanation of such evils as illness, injury, and natural disasters and for the occurrence of suffering and metaphysical evil such as death. First, one can attribute them to the causal workings of the world; second, one can attribute them to malicious natural beings such as sorcerers, witches (including possessor of the evil eye), or little green men in flying saucers; third, one can attribute them to a supernatural being or beings. All of these approaches divide into many, often very different variations.
Appeals to the causal nature of the world include, aside from scientific accounts, various notions of karma (operating within and across a person’s lifetime), more or less fatalist systems such as astrology, and metaphysical claims that any physical world with the regular laws needed for life must by its very nature be impermanent and prone to undesirable but inevitable inconveniences. Appeals to the actions of either human or supernatural agents can also vary enormously. For example, misfortune can come from a divinity as a way of reminding the victim of some religious or moral duty or as punishment for some trespass or as a way of building character; on the other hand, the misfortune can be undeserved, caused by a malicious being such as the Tibetan klu, the Burmese nats, the Scandinavian black elves, or (as in the case of HIV—AIDS) government scientists doing secret weapons research.
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