On Evil by Adam Morton

Evil is not the most comfortable subject to consider. Apart from its inherently unsettling nature, a short effort at reflection quickly reveals some serious problems in trying to conceptualise the phenomenon. In the literature there are two main contentions.

1) Evil is a deficiency of goodness. In the human moral sphere it is the failure to act well. Sins are ones of omission as much as commission.

2) Evil is an independent (perhaps supernatural) force or principle unto itself.  One is minded of 1 Peter 5:8 “your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour”. Evil is not passive on this account. It is energetic and destructive, relishing the disaster and suffering that it wreaks.

There is also an important distinction to be held between moral and natural evil. Moral evil flows from human action or inaction. Natural evil flows from natural events outwith our control. As for the latter, William L. Rowe gave a famous example of “In some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering”. (Rowe, William L. (1979). “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism“. American Philosophical Quarterly 16: 337.) What ‘greater good’ or ‘unfathomable divine intention’ could possibly justify this intensity of suffering? It is but one tiny example of the continuous omnipresence of suffering that we cannot bear to contemplate, but is nevertheless real.

For my money Adam Morton (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Morton) has written the most accessible and sound introduction to the subject in the ‘Thinking in Action’ series from Routledge. At only 168 pages, On Evil is an ideal entry point.

The author argues that any account of evil must help us understand three things: why evil occurs; why evil often arises out of banal or everyday situations; and how we can be seen as evil. Drawing on fascinating examples as diverse as Augustine, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, psychological studies of deviant behaviour and profiles of serial killers, he argues that evil occurs when internal, mental barriers against it simply break down. He also introduces us to some nightmare people, such as Adolf Eichmann and Hannibal Lecter, reminding us that understanding their actions as humans brings us closer to understanding evil.

Go on to read Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay (1984) by Mary Midgely. For Midgley, as for Aristotle, wickedness involves an unwillingness or an incapacity to live in accordance with true human nature, which is in essence moral and good. It may be chosen voluntarily and we bear responsibility for such choices, but at the same time it signals a lack of true self-knowledge and self-realisation. That is all that wickedness implies: it is, in effect, merely banal ineptitude. You may not agree that evil can so easily be marginalized to the realm of human error and ignorance. To find out enquire at your local library or available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wickedness-Philosophical-Essay-Routledge-Classics/dp/0415253985/ref=sr_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419330142&sr=1-9&keywords=mary+midgley

The next step should be to John Kekes (1990) Facing Evil. The author seeks to show that the prevalence of evil presents a fundamental problem for our secular sensibility. He develops a conception of character-morality as a response. He argues that the main sources of evil are habitual, unchosen actions produced by our character defects and that we can increase our control over the evil we cause by cultivating a reflective temper. Enquire at your local library or available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Facing-Evil-John-Kekes/dp/0691020957/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=1-1&qid=1419763668

For a thoroughly absorbing discussion about the connection between evolution and evil go to Timothy Anders (1994) The Evolution of Evil: An Inquiry into the Ultimate Origins of Human Suffering. With the acceptance of Darwinian natural selection, “evolution” has been equated with Providence: It is widely supposed that evolution always does what is best, and always in the most efficient way. The term “evolution” has even come to be synonymous with progress or improvement by suggesting that natural selection operates always and wholly for the good of each individual organism. Timothy Anders takes issue with this popular conception, and suggests that it is based on wishful thinking and anthropocentric bias. As Anders sees it, the process of evolution is neither progressive nor benign.  At its every turn, evolution creates new forms of suffering, hardship, and conflict, which the organisms produced by it are obliged to endure. Anders describes the human organism’s inherent physical defects, the serious disadvantages of reliance on intelligence and learning, the anti-human traditions prevalent in all human cultures, the atrocities of the ignoble savage, and the biological roots of interpersonal conflict. This is not a book for Pollyanna or the inhabitants of Beldingsville. Enquire at your local library or available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Evolution-Evil-Enquiry-Ultimate-Suffering/dp/081269175X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=1-3&qid=1419764026

For a defence of the existence and goodness of God in the face of evil go to John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (1966, 1985, reissued 2007) Hick argues that suffering exists as a means of spiritual development. In other words, God allows suffering so that human souls might grow or develop towards maturation. This is the so-called “Soul-Making Defence”. Enquire at your local library or available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Evil-Love-Emeritus-Professor-John/dp/0230252796/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1419761078&sr=8-1&keywords=evil+and+the+god+of+love

A second widely read attempt at theodicy is found in Austin Farrer, (1962) Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited: an essay on providence and evil, containing the Nathaniel Taylor Lectures for 1961. London: Collins. Enquire at your local library or available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Love-Almighty-Unlimited-Austin-Farrer/dp/0006414095/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419765170&sr=1-1&keywords=farrer+ills+unlimited

If you seriously doubt whether Hick’s or Farrer’s lines of argument can possibly account for the sheer extent and intensity of both moral and natural evil (as I doubt they can), you’ll find an ally in Stephen T. Davis. His convincing rebuttal is found in Encountering Evil (2001) Enquire at your local library or available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Encountering-Evil-New-Ed-Theodicy/dp/066422251X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419761387&sr=1-1&keywords=encountering+evil

Useful to have at hand is the anthology The Problem of Evil (1990) edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams. This offers an introductory essay plus a selection of papers from journals. Enquire at your local library or available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Problem-Evil-Oxford-Readings-Philosophy/dp/0198248660/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=8-2&qid=1420134030

The deepest account of the problem of evil in fiction is still probably that of Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov (1880) Reviewed at http://sbr.lanark.co.uk/wp-admin/post.php?post=1316&action=edit  Enquire at your local library or available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Brothers-Karamazov-Fyodor-Dostoevsky/dp/0099922800/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419761988&sr=1-1&keywords=brothers+karamazov

For general guidance on reading about The Problem of Evil use this link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_evil  Follow up with a lifetime of reflection on the concept of evil with the article and bibliographies in the Stanford Encyclopedia at this link  http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/concept-evil/

Also engage in some reflection on the subject by listening to the BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ 45 minute episode on Evil. Available from the link http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00547g3  With Jones Erwin, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Limerick; Stephen Mulhall, Tutor in Philosophy at New College, Oxford; Margaret Atkins, Lecturer in Theology at Trinity and All Saints College, University of Leeds. Chaired by Melvyn Bragg. First broadcast on Thursday 3 May 2001.

168 pages in Routledge paperback edition

First published 16 June 2004

ISBN 978-0415305198

Adam Morton






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