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Evil - Moral And Natural Evil

suffering evils distinction experience

A distinction is commonly made between evils that are caused by free human acts (moral evil) and those that are part of nature (natural or physical evil). Moral evils alone seem our responsibility, and so natural evil has largely fallen away in secular discussion. (It lives on in a different form as the problem of suffering.) And yet in experience the two seem entangled.

Moral evil causes suffering in its victims, and suffering seems to be the only way to atone for it. But evil seems deeper than the distinction between agent and victim. Paul Ricoeur (1985) describes a "strange experience of passivity at the very heart of evil-doing." And the extremest forms of suffering, as Simone Weil argued, can feel deserved.

Caution about these categories is in order. Historically, they are the remains of the closed system of culpa (fault) and poena (penalty), which from Saint Augustine of Hippo on claimed to justify all evils at once. All natural suffering, including death and even the carnivorousness of animals, was understood to be just punishment for the crimes of men (or angels), crimes defined not in terms of the harm they do to other creatures but of disobedience or rebellion. Ignoring victims, this system elides the central problematic of modern discussions, innocent suffering.

Conceptually, most discussions of moral evil subscribe to a philosophically embattled understanding of human freedom, which is threatened also by developments in the sciences. By restricting discussion to intentional individual acts, these theories also obscure (and quite literally naturalize) social or cultural evils.

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