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brief remarks on the existence of evil

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Here’s a quote from one Alexander Pruss, over at the Prosblogion blog:

Consider Rowe’s argument, which is essentially:

  1. E is an evil for which we have been unable to find a justifier despite serious investigation.
  2. Therefore, probably, E has no justifier.
  3. If some evil has no justifier, then theism is false.
  4. Therefore, probably, theism is false.

And then consider this anti-evolutionary argument:

  1. F is a major inheritable feature of an organism for which we have been unable to find an evolutionary explanation despite serious investigation.
  2. Therefore, probably, F has no evolutionary explanation.
  3. If some major inheritable feature of an organism has no evolutionary explanation, then evolutionary universalism is false.
  4. Therefore, probably, evolutionary universalism is false.

Now, I’m not a philosopher, and sometimes reading philosophy makes me feel giddy and sick [which may be one reason why I keep coming back to it for a wee dip], but I must say that I  find this syllogistic way of putting things very irritating [my romanticism again?], and though I don’t know if it gives philosophy a bad name, I suspect that it should. I should point out in fairness to Pruss that he considers both arguments to be bad ones, but this isn’t the first post in which he starts off with syllogisms, and it doesn’t endear me to him.

This is because [now that I think about it!] I see syllogisms as summarizing arguments. They just don’t belong at the beginning, and I don’t think I’m just talking aesthetics here.

You see, I just can’t get past premiss one of the first argument – about which a whole essay, or a whole book, could easily be written. So that’s what I’m going to do [not a book, I promise]. Well, okay, I might look at the other premisses in argument one too.

So, ‘E is an evil for which we have been unable to find a justifier despite serious investigation.’ It seems to me there are, at very first glance, at least two words or concepts that we need to work on here, ‘evil’ and ‘justifier’. If I was asked to define an act of evil off the top of my head, I would, after initial protestations, say that it was an act which led, intentionally, to seriously harmful consequences, for which there was no [objective? rational?] justification. That’s to say, lack of justification would be inherent in the definition of an evil act, so that premiss one has a sort of redundancy about it. And I’m not sure about the ‘serious investigation’ bit. The vast majority of evil acts strike us immediately as so, don’t they? That is, they strike us immediately as unjustifiable, that’s why they strike us as evil. Think of the holocaust, the Armenian massacres, the strangling of young women for supposedly dishonouring the family by marrying the men of their choice, the Catholic Church’s ban on contraceptives. All of these acts are of course justified from a certain perspective, but some perspectives are unworthy of respect. This is why the term ‘justifier’ also needs work.

So what could we mean by a justified evil? Do we mean an action which has terrible consequences for certain individuals, but positive consequences for a whole lot more? Presumably a consequentialist would argue that, therefore, such an act would not be evil, as the overall consequences, weighing up the good against the evil, would be good. This seems to rather undervalue the individual in favour of the commons, and it seems in other ways inadequate somehow.

I have to admit I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the concept of evil. I can well understand using it as an expression of contempt or outrage for certain acts, but it’s clear, from the rest of argument one above, that anyone who would take argument one seriously has quite a different view of evil from this. It’s saying that theism is dependent upon evil being justified, and you begin to wonder whether the evil here being discussed isn’t something that we simply judge as being evil, but something else altogether. A C Grayling points to the problem in the beginning of his review of Terry Eagleton’s On Evil.

Terry Eagleton brings news: he tells us that there really is such a thing as evil. He feels that it is necessary to tell us this because contemporary liberals and leftists regard talk of evil as merely a way of describing extreme forms of moral badness – and that, he argues, misses a point. I think he is wrong about this; liberals and leftists would delete the “merely” in the foregoing sentence because in capturing the extreme character of the badness in question the word “evil” does an important job. They would therefore have no reason to deny that evil exists, not in some metaphysical sense but in the plain sense that there are people and acts that unequivocally exemplify it – people who in extreme ways are deliberately malicious, cruel and destructive, and acts that are horrible, brutal and morally revolting. How could anyone deny this given that, alas, history and the contemporary world stagger under the evidence?

Obviously Grayling isn’t talking about justification here, he’s talking about a more immediate, visceral response, with the idea of ‘unjustifiable behaviour’ being something of a post-hoc rationalization – though something that largely stands up under scrutiny. Justification is something that must be agreed upon, and in terms of acts described as evil, as with the examples of egregious acts I’ve mentioned, there is general agreement that those acts are unjustified, or that the justifications given by the perpetrators don’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny.

Looking at argument one above again, the strength of this argument against theism apparently relies upon the claim that theists believe in evil that’s justified, not of course from a human perspective [consequentialist, say], but from a humanly unknowable, supernatural perspective. If this is so, then premise one, which is only about the failure to find a human justification, cannot be the basis for sub-conclusion two, which presumably is about all justifications, natural and supernatural. So in this sense the argument fails. The problem is of course, that anything can be claimed to be supernaturally/metaphysically/deistically justified, for the ways of the supernatural are way beyond the ken of our minuscule minds. It’s just another way to bamboozle people into thinking that maybe supernatural entities can be conjured into being through some species of logic. They can’t.

Evil does seem to be bound up with intent and deliberation – Grayling [and I have to say his critique of Eagleton is quite delicious] points out that this observation was made by Empedocles long ago when he argued that evil was an expression of hate. This counts out earthquakes and tsunamis as evil events. It also counts out the actions of ‘brute beasts’ or small children. Mental illness might be a borderline issue, on Empedocles’ definition – you might ‘hate’ and act on that hatred due to mental derangement. Your hatred might be genuine in your state of mental derangement, but is your mentally deranged state a state of your genuine self? Mostly we think not: that’s how the law sees it. What then of states of temporary mental derangement – under the influence of intoxicants of various kinds? The fact that there are obvious social disagreements about these states and the degrees of responsibility and culpability attached to acts committed in these states just further emphasizes the fact that it is up to us to decide what constitutes an evil act and what doesn’t.

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Written by stewart henderson

May 25, 2011 at 10:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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