“If you see a blind man, kick him. Why should you be kinder than God?”
As we look around us in the world sometimes we see atrocities that no matter how happy and positive we might be, it is simply hard to think that this might be a good world, and even more so that there might be a good God out there. We look around us in this world and there seems to be so much pain, suffering, abuse, death, in one word: evil. In fact, as we categorize evil into moral and natural evil, one stemming from nature whereas the other stems from man, we are intimately aware that there seems to be an overabundance of acts and events that we can categorize. We can explore the theories of Leibniz and the critique that Voltaire applies to him as an example on the central question of religion and human nature in general of the how there can be a benevolent God ruling over us and who yet would allow this much evil to take place. So maybe instead of bringing a moral judgment to life itself we can look at evil as a moral judgment that we bring to life and the natural chaos that is our existence.
In order to categorize evil, first we want to explore what it is that we even mean when we use the word evil. Is it evil for a person to steal money from another? Is an Earthquake evil? We can categorize evil as moral which would include acts of men that cause suffering like genocides, war, murders, rapes, theft, etc. Moral evil “results from a moral agent misusing his or her free will such as the agent is blameworthy for it. It includes human actions as well as character traits” (JE). We can also categorize evil as natural and that would include Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, plagues and epidemics. “Natural evil is evil that results from natural phenomena and is not brought about by the free will of a moral agent. It includes natural disasters and certain human illnesses” (JE).
The question of moral and ethics associated with the categorization of evil is heavy with biases. Is it evil that if we kill an ant that is eating out of our plate of food? Most people would agree that this is not serious evil, although it is certainly evil to the ant. Is it evil to kill an animal to eat it? Jain Hindus are vegetarian because taking any life is murder yet most people in the word are omnivores. Is it evil if we kill a man? In most cultures this is one of the taboos as Freud calls them, and killing is considered immoral, evil and a crime. Is it evil if we kill a dying man who wishes to die? Now the question becomes more interesting, and touches on a long debate about euthanasia that has been ragging. People would agree that it is humane to kill an animal with no hope of survival to reduce the suffering, yet the same people are divided on whether it is considered killing a person who is suffering in agony as they are dying in a prolonged fashion or whether it makes sense to reduce their suffering. Is it evil if we kill a man who is about to kill many other people? In society, we tend to almost put a killer who saves many lives in the position of a hero. Was it evil to kill Hitler? Most people would agree that Hitler was evil and needed to be stopped but to his followers he was an idol to follow and die for. So it is starting to be apparent that there is difficulty on where to draw the line between good and evil. Evil seems to almost depends on our definition of the word and our perception. Ethically and morally it is hard to agree on what is right and wrong so universally it is hard to determine what is evil making evil as very personal perception. Hours after the 2012 shooting in Aurora Colorado, president Obama said “such evil is senseless, beyond reason” referring to the acts of a murderer that killed order of magnitude less Americans, let alone countless more Iraqis, than the war in Iraq that the same president somehow finances. So who makes the moral judgment to term something as evil or good? Ignatieff (2004) writes that “life’s toughest choices are not between good and bad, but between bad and worse (…) the choices between lesser evils (…) these are the kind of choices we face when dealing with terrorist threats, if we do too little we will get attacked again, if we do too much innocent people will die”. And so it is only natural to ask who can make these decisions and how heavy as burden is it to make such decision? So it could seem natural to look for a moral agent outside of ourselves that would in fact define good and evil and that being would exemplify and embody everything that is good, so a God that is omnibenevolent seems to be a great comfort even to the uninitiated minds.
We explored evil as a concept and an idea and it is interesting to note that the word carries as heavy a religious connotation as the word God itself. One of the great philosophers of the European rise from the dark middle ages in the eighteenth century, Leibniz, explores the concept of a Western God, to whom are attributed the traditional divine characteristics of omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence and he tries to reconcile these notions with the concept of evil, in his only full length book Theodicy, evidence that this great philosopher spent a lot of his time thinking this problem in depth. In Theodicy Leibniz argues the possibility of an existence of a God that is good despite the manifestation of evil in its many forms. Leibniz set the stage for asking the question on whether God can exist and evil can also exist at the same time, and moreover what are the implications for the intrinsic goodness of the universe.
Taking the question of the goodness of the universe one step forward, Voltaire makes his satire of Leibniz, in Candide, a comedy describing the life of its hero and point of view character with the same name, in an account that is almost not funny given the overwhelming number of obstacles that the heroes face. Leibniz’s voice echoes in Pangloss’s teachings to his naïve student Candide:
Pangloss gave instruction in metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there cannot possibly be an effect without a cause and that in this best of all possible worlds the baron’s castle was the most beautiful of all castles and his wife the best of all possible baronesses. —It is clear, said he, that things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end. Observe: noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles. Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches. . . . Consequently, those who say everything is well are uttering mere stupidities; they should say everything is for the best.
Ceres, P. (1900) “History of the Devil and the Idea of Evil from the Earliest Times to the Present Day” Princeton University Press
Julia Esteve classes on evil – lecture notes (JE)
Ignatieff, M. (2004) “The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror” Kessinger Legacy Reprints
Leibniz, G. W. (1709 ) “Theodicy” The Project Guttenberg
Scherrer- Schaub, C. (2001) “Life after Death in Buddhism” SARS Bulletin des Amis des Sciences Religieuses, 2, pp49-62, Paris (French)
Voltaire (1759) “Candide” The Project Guttenberg