3/21/2008 7:24


The "problem of evil" is a strange subject. In the first place, there is the implicit assumption that there is a problem. That there is evil can be demonstrated objectively, dependent only on an acceptable definition of evil. The belief that evil is a problem requires additional assumptions about how the world ought to be.

We who claim to set great value on personal liberty are poor ones to advocate a world without evil. A large portion of evil would appear to result simply from the combination of free will and limited skill or perspective. I would consider the death of a young girl by gunshot to be a significant evil. My experience suggests that such deaths occur, but that they are rarely the result of deliberation. Instead, the gun is shot with the intent of hitting someone (or something) other than the child or even for purposes of celebration, as a noisemaker.

The death of the child is, in such cases, a secondary and unintended result. The secondary result might occur because the shooter is unable to target effectively, for example; or because the target does not contain the projectile, or because the shooter does not give sufficient consideration to what could happen to a stray bullet. None of which lessen the evil of the resulting death, although the level of evil attributed to the shooter could vary substantially among the various possibilities.

Similar comments can be made about hitting people with moving vehicles or about deaths resulting from the collapse of construction cranes. Very seldom are such deaths intended results of someone's actions. (I have never heard of a case of first-degee murder by construction crane collapse). These evils are the result of failures of skill, failures of forethought, failures to take preventive actions, or failures of awareness -- not knowing a person was present.

One can make a coherent argument that an actor's failure to think through the effects of his actions is, in itself, an evil of omission. However, the reality of the world is that every person is limited in knowledge, in reasoning power, and in time. Thus it follows that we must necessarily be satisfied with some limited approximation of forethought.

We also accept that there is less culpability as the person performing an overt action is more constrained. That is, the loss of freedom of action reduces the level of evil we assign to specific actions.

So it would appear that a perfect world implied vast factual knowledge which converts into foreknowledge, or constraint where there is ignorance. This conclusion contradicts our experience of freedom and discovery as two of the greatest goods in human existence. (I leave the wonders of discovery for a different essay, but that delay does not impinge on my blithely using the supposed conclusion to bolster this argument.)

This is so striking that I offer the possibility that, in the actual reality of this world, the problem of evil is self-contradictory.

Let us reexamine the issue. How is it that we identify this "problem"? Evil exists, but merely that something exists does not define a problem. What philosopher spends a career on "the problem of air"? We do not like evil; at the least, we each dislike certain specific evils which are distasteful to us. Evil seems to be preventable and, in fact, we discount the evilness of an event as it appears to be more nearly inevitable.

So, then, the only problem of evil is that those things we don't like are not inevitable.

We humans created the airplane engine and, for the most part, we generally find that creation to be a positive good. We don't consider the airplane engine intrinsically evil. It is true that people have been killed by the moving parts of airplane engines, walking into propellers or being sucked through jets, and it is true that these deaths were not inevitable. The deaths were therefore evil. We humans responded by building fences: literal fences, and also virtual fences of training requirements and operating protocols. We did not invent dynodicy.

If an airplane engine is not evil in itself, then certainly the engine which conveys heat across the planet and makes the earth's surface habitable for us is not in itself evil. It is true that people have been killed by the moving parts of this global engine, especially cyclonic windstorms and their accoutrements. We humans responded by building weak houses in exposed areas and by inventing theodicy.

We humans seem to be on the verge of curing genetic diseases by replacing missing or defective genetic material. We generally believe that is good, but we still consider the existence of the tools for accomplishing genetic insertions to be evil because -- like airplane engines -- those tools can do harm as well as good.

Is there a problem with retroviruses and hurricanes only because we were handed the tools ready-made, and didn't create them ourselves? Let the creator deal with all subsequent consequences. Not that anyone alive today invented axes or rifles or even automobiles, or that their inventors are held accountable for the evils that are perpetrated with them by and against our neighbors today.

The "problem of evil" -- no, indeed, it is the problems of a multiplicity of evils -- is that innocuous objects and processes are misplaced, or misused, or treated with inadequate respect, or (to throw in an allusion to Genesis) have not yet been brought under the dominion of beneficence. If there are problems of evils, the correct response is this:

First, to uncover the proper relationships between us humans and the creatures, substances, processes, and inventions which, when misused or direspected or allowed to run amok, can cause suffering.

Second, to establish those proper relationships with respect and skills which will (with an allusion to Paul of Tarsus) overcome the evilness and allow their goodness to be expressed.