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Evil - Evil, The Problem Of Evil, Moral And Natural Evil, Epicurus' Old Questions, Conclusion

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical Background

The descriptive-normative term evil is a significant anomaly in our relativistic and noncognitivist age. Otherwise careful thinkers deploy it as if its extension were obvious and indisputable. And yet it is used in widely differing ways even in our own time. A narrow meaning confines it to the deliberate infliction of harm. This corresponds to only part of the so-called problem of evil, and it is different again from what is feared by those who pray, "deliver us from evil."

Aspects of the problems of wickedness, of suffering, of finitude, and indeed of meaning come together in reflection on evil. But it is not obvious that these problems form a larger whole. Paul Ricoeur (1985) suggests that it is distinctive to western thought to see "sin, suffering and death" as aspects of a single enigma.

Evil's enigmatic character seems to demand narrative treatment. How did evil come into the world? Why and how are human beings sucked into it? And no less important: what can be done to escape it? Given the variety and extent of evils, we should perhaps not be surprised to find every tradition replete with stories and theories. As Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty has suggested, a welter of often incompatible stories may be the most psychologically satisfying response to an insoluble problem.

Yet evil is not just an intellectual challenge. Some of the worst forms of suffering human beings endure are caused by human agents. Our capacity for inflicting such suffering challenges our very understanding of human agency. Can a will capable of evil ever be fully trusted—or even understood?

The challenge goes deeper yet. Because vulnerability to evil and a capacity to inflict it are parts of human nature, evil is not something we can hope to consider in a disinterested way. The very desire to generate a disinterested account of it has often been seen as itself a manifestation of evil, whether as hubris, curiositas, or disregard for the humanity of one's fellows. Religious ritual is turned to because we are out of our depth, our capacities for understanding and reform so weak it is a danger to take comfort in them.

It is sometimes thought a specifically modern condition to be suspicious of philosophical theodicies, but the truth seems closer to the opposite. What is specifically modern, rather, may be supposing that we can peer into the abyss without being overwhelmed by it.

The following discussion will first survey understandings of evil as a problem so broad that it defies conventional intellectual or ethical response. An account of the changing fortunes of philosophical accounts of "the problem of evil" will show the distinctiveness of modern discussions. Reference to other traditions will be made, but the discussion will focus on Western materials.

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