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Thoughts on evil

May 4, 2009

N is a philosopher, and we spent some time over the weekend at a philosophy conference.  At the conference, one of the presenters talked about evils, lesser evils, and marring evils, and I was fascinated.

In philosophy, evil often just means “the bad thing” or “the thing to be avoided.”  Used in this way, evil includes natural disasters as well as acts of malice.  I grew up with a very different understanding of evil – natural disasters were things that happened, but murder and abuse were evil – so it took me a while to stop poking at the more general philosophical definition of evil, the definition that includes what happened to Teddy.

Having said that, I have to admit that I wonder, probably too often, if there is a human cause to CDH, if human apathy or ignorance or greed have allowed things to be in the very air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, that could trigger this condition, make it possible, make it happen.  Just because there’s no known cause for the condition, doesn’t mean I, or human beings in general, bear no responsibility for it.  Sometimes I feel so strongly that Teddy wanted to be here, was meant to be here, that the good his life would have brought was thwarted by some malign intent.  Strange, because while I don’t believe in hell, this idea of a cosmic evil taunts the edges of my brain.

Back to evil as “the bad thing”: some evils are visited on people by circumstance beyond their control.  Even though those people bear no responsiblity for the evil, their lives can be marred by it; furthermore, they may have to make choices that will haunt them forever.  This seems such an obvious point, but having it put in clear terms – you may be hurt, even irredeemably hurt, by things outside your control and the choices you will be forced to make – clicked the lightbulb of my brain.  Yes, I thought. Oh, yes.

In the paper I went to hear, the speaker emphasized that we need to consider the possibility of marring evils when we look at future generations.  Environmentally speaking, are we putting them in situations where they will have to choose a lesser evil that will mar them?  Right now the answer to that seems to be, unavoidably, yes.

On days like today, I wonder if the economic crisis isn’t trivial compared to climate change, overpopulation, our increasingly degraded relationship with the earth, our increasingly degraded relationships with each other.

One of my friends at work spent weeks trying to convince one of our adminstrators that she could rally faculty and staff to agree to a furlough that would save jobs, but she was told repeatedly that he was constantly hearing people tell him the opposite, that they wouldn’t sacrifice any pittance of their salary to save someone else’s livelihood.  I realize that these are just the bad apples, that most people are capable of caring, but right now I think of the people I know who are losing their jobs and I come near to despair.

I don’t want people to be hurt.  Especially after Teddy, seeing people hurt and in distress tears at my heart.  Knowing that at least some of them could have been helped but weren’t because of simple and ugly greed, makes me queasy.  And the fact that I would have gladly given of my (rather small and much-needed) salary if it would have helped, while people who make many times what I do are completely unwilling, makes me angry.

Last night, watching the PBS production of The Old Curiosity Shop and thinking of how much Dickens did to draw attention and sympathy to the plight of the poor, I kept wondering, who do we have like that now?  What popular writer talks about issues of poverty in ways that catch people’s attention?  Our TV shows in the States all seem to be about doctors, lawyers, the police, the cool, the rich, the obscenely rich, and the hott.  Where’s our Little Nell, our Fagan, our Scrooge?

And, I more and more often wonder, where’s our Robin Hood?

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2 comments

  1. I guess there’s still Ralph Nader.


  2. Sadly I see no Lincoln green coming over this horizon. Will inform you of any sightings though.

    This was so interesting. Thank you for writing it. I had no concept of the philosophical definition of evil prior to reading this. It does make sense that those two seemingly disparate categories should actually be huddling together under the same nasty umbrella. I think there is a strong human urge to separate the ‘it just happened’ and the ‘SOMEONE was responsible for this’.
    Perhaps I don’t want my life to be meaningless, I don’t want the death of my baby to be something that happened randomly. I feel (irrationally I think) that it happened because I am not a good person. Perhaps I don’t want to accept that my life has been marred forever by events that were completely beyond my control. To accept that would mean accepting that I have no control. I WANT there to be a reason why the evil thing happened to me and my daughter. I also sit there wondering if, if I could see the inner workings of everything, I would see the fatal mistake I had made that led to her death. Or the evasive action that I failed to take, my sins of omission or comission.

    But lightbulbs also clicking. Marring evil, such an accurate description but so chilling.



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