Whenever the topic of natural evil comes up there are always those who express befuddlement at the concept. Yesterday I gave the example of a mudslide burying a campsite of children. That kind of event would constitute a horrific natural evil.
The claim was met with some skepticism. NW responded like this:
I’m wandering into unfamiliar territory so be gentle with me (crosses fingers), but I want to say that your mudslide is “tragic” but not “evil,” which is to say that the mudslide is not acting contrary to any moral value and/or duty by burying the campsite full of sleeping children even if it remains a very tragic event.
And Erroll Treslan added:
Why is it a natural evil? They’re going to die sooner or later. Is it still a natural evil if they get smited by the landslide on their 100th birthdays? Why?
With those questions echoing in the background I’m going to explain just what natural evil is (with the ususal proviso that this obviously means my take on what natural evil is).
Let’s start with the basics. What does it mean for something to be “evil”? Look up in a typical dictionary and the first definition you’re likely to see is something like this: “morally bad; immoral; wicked”. Thus for something (an agent, an event) to be evil is for that agent or event to be morally bad. Now it might seem a category mistake to call an event morally bad. Isn’t that a property that pertains to agents only? However, the perplexity is only on the surface. We can understand events (like the shooting in Aurora, Colorado) or states of affairs (like sexual slavery in Thailand) to be evil derivatively in virtue of the agents who willfully actualize or perpetuate those events or states of affairs.
What is it that makes the shooting in Colorado evil? There are two basic components to the event. To begin with, there is the aforementioned evil agent who carries out an action with forethought and intention. And further, there is the carnage, suffering, pain, death that results.
In the case of the Colorado shooting the perpetrator committed an evil act. But (moral) evil may equally pertain to a person who fails to prevent an evil act. Imagine that the Colorado shooter had friends who knew he was planning to kill dozens of people at the theatre and they did nothing to stop it. In that case, they would be evil as well and their evil acts of omission would add to the cumulative evil of the event itself.
Now let’s remove the shooter from the situation and imagine a comparably large group of people in a campground. Suddenly a mudslide rolls down the hill and buries the campsite, killing twelve, injuring fifty-nine, and traumatizing untold others. You might be inclined to call that event a “tragedy” rather than an “evil”.
But let’s say that it turns out that the park rangers knew the slide was imminent due to recent heavy rains, and they neglected to close the campground. Suddenly the character of the situation is transformed. It is no longer sufficient to call the mudslide simply a tragedy. We now think of it as in some sense a crime, an evil. And we hold the park rangers morally culpable for their inaction.
So an event or state of affairs can be considered evil due to agent acts of commission (acting to realize the result) or acts of omission (failing to act to prevent the result).
With that in mind, let’s think about the mudslide again. But now let’s imagine that nobody knew or suspected in advance that the mudslide would occur. Does the lack of any human agents who could have acted to prevent the mudslide mean it is no longer evil?
It would seem so, since there now is no human agent whose evil action can be derivatively transferred to the resulting event.
But wait! That assumes that there are no other agents (i.e. non-human ones) who could have prevented the mudslide. Is that true?
That depends. If one is an atheist then it may very well be the case that there are no other agents in which case the mudslide may indeed simply be a tragedy rather than an evil event.
But if one is a theist then there is another agent who foreknew the mudslide would occur and could have acted to prevent it, but who chose not to. That is, suddenly we find God paralleling the role of our park rangers with the prospect that God’s act of omission could have been evil in such a way that the evil transfers to the mudslide thereby transforming a simple tragedy into an evil event.
And this brings us to the concept of natural evil which I’ll define as follows:
Natural evil refers to any event or state of affairs which (i) directly or indirectly leads to the suffering and/or deprivation of sentient creatures, (ii) is unconnected to the acts of commission or ommission of any finite creature (iii) but which is connected to the acts of commission or ommission of a divine being.
Note that the definition distinguishes between direct suffering and indirect suffering. Here’s the difference:
Scenario 1 (direct suffering): A tornado destroys the McCready farm house and all the McCreadys die within it.
Scenario 2 (indirect suffering): A tornado destroys the McCready farm house while they’re at church.
In scenario 1 the tornado immediately causes suffering and death. In scenario 2 no immediate suffering is caused by the tornado. But when the McCreadys return from church they will suffer greatly upon the discovery of their destroyed home.
God may not have directly caused the tornado but God surely could have prevented it and yet chose not to. This leads to the tornado strike being evil as a result of God’s act of omission analogous to the mudslide being evil as a result of the park rangers’ act of omission.
Here doth end Part 1.