Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Nature of Evil

The topic of the existence of Evil in the world has been a hotly contested issue since the dawn of time. What is Evil? Why does Evil exist? How could a loving and caring God create a world in which Evil could exist? These and many other questions have plagued thinkers and theologians through the ages. What we have to do is avoid a naive approach to the question. We need to take a step back, see the big picture, and go through the philosopher's process of taking a simple question and analyzing it like a prosecuting attorney. We can start with the obvious question: What is Evil?

It is attractive to say, Evil results the suffering and death of people for no apparent reason. Earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, deranged killers, child molesters, serial killers, and diseases all fall into this category. People killed or maimed without reason or sense, random suffering, innocents suffering and dying, etc. What better example of Evil could there be? The suffering that occurs at the personal level of the sufferer is Evil from their perspective, certainly. From our Objective Observer perspective it also seems senseless and pointless, and therefor Evil.

Philosophers who have considered this point of view have sometimes concluded that these processes might just be part of the normal human condition, and might be chalked up to Bad Luck, or something akin to Karma or Fate. Some people do well, and some suffer. Life is a continuum of Good and Evil, and defining a point along the line that separates Evil from the rest of the Human Condition is a bit arbitrary, and can be hard to defend. One man's suffering is another man's pleasure at times, in this age of masochism and marathons. The senseless death that occurs at time of natural disasters is certainly bad luck for the ones affected and killed, but isn't the shifting of the Earth's crust a normal, natural process that we recognize as a geologic process? How can that be Evil?

Terrorist attacks are a form of warfare, are they not? True, the targets are not "military" in nature and there may not be a declared War between political entities that we like to see when War is declared, but the act of aggression is one typical of warfare, and one many of us play out everyday on the myriad electronic games we (and our children) play on their game consoles. Warfare is a military action taken to support a political purpose or end, in the correct sense of war, and the conclusion of warfare is the establishment of a new political scheme, not a new military one. When War is over the armies go home and the politicians step in and clean up the mess they created.  In that sense War is not Evil, is it? War is a human activity that is planned, executed, and resolved, albeit in a context of human suffering and death, and destruction of property.

Deranged killers are pathological, are they not? They have an issue, maybe a medical one, that drives them to do bad things to other people (and maybe to themselves, too). In a sense, the pathological tag we give them is a way we can identify these people as different from us, as different than the norm we have in our society. Cannibals kill people, too, and eat them, but that is normal in their society, and they don't seem pathological to us. We can see the victim as having an Evil thing done to them, but the perpetrator may be acting on impulses that are organic and/or environmental in origin.

Through the ages thinkers have wrestled with questions of Evil, the origins of Evil, the basis of Evil, and the extent of Evil, and come up with some pretty different ways to think about it. How can we frame a discussion of Evil that allows us to come to some conclusions, to identify Evil in some way we that we can agree, and to couch a discussion of Evil in more than a strictly Christian context. This is our challenge.

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