The Problem with the Problem of Evil


Does evil exist? To pose this oft-asked question is to perpetrate an empty reification. Evil is not a substance, like oxygen or phlogiston, that may or may not be present in the universe. Evil is a quality. We speak of courage, too, but we understand it as a property of actions and the people who perform them. We don’t wonder whether courage exists. Of course it exists, as a quality; of course it does not, as an entity.

For theists, the question of evil has another bearing. If evil exists, how can a good God have created it? One standard answer is he didn’t, because it doesn’t. Evil is simply the absence of good, not a thing in itself, as darkness is the absence of light. This strikes me as both feeble and superfluous (not to mention casuistic). Darkness can indeed only be produced by the removal of light, but evil is hardly a recessive quality. It forces its presence on the world.

God didn’t create evil, people do. Only humans knowingly do wrong (though the jury may be out on the more intelligent animals). If I kill my neighbor, that’s evil. If a snake kills him, it isn’t; acting on instinct, the creature had no choice. As for earthquakes and the like, they are evil only from our perspective. Who says that nature exists for human benefit? What’s bad for my neighbor is good for the snake. The analogy with light and dark is more apt than the believers realize. Darkness may be the absence of light, but light itself is an artifact of perception. Without an eye to see it, light is nothing more than a certain segment of the electromagnetic spectrum, no different from radio waves or x-rays. Earthquakes, snakes, smallpox, cancer: none of these are our bad in themselves. They are only bad to us.

Which is not to say that evil doesn’t exist. It exists, like every social thing, for us and by us. Evil isn’t out there; it’s in here. To believe otherwise is to persist in the ancient dualism of the Manichees, which seeks to absolve of moral culpability both God and man. It is we who are evil (or good), courageous (or cowardly). Addressing the real problem of evil–what to do about it–begins by recognizing that.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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