Uncommon Sense

August 7, 2022

Evil, Part XYZ

Filed under: Culture,language,Morality,Philosophy,Reason,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 11:24 am
Tags: , , ,

There is an article on Medium.com entitled The Problem of Evil and Suffering, with the subtitle of “Is There a Solution?” These things usually drift into theological realms but here I want to address language instead. I have used the metaphor of a number line to describe various states of good and bad. Of course, I start from the beginning with “the opposite of good is not evil; it is bad. Since evil is at the extreme, its opposite must also be at the extreme, and “good” just doesn’t hack it as an extreme.

Okay, let us lay out our number line. In the middle is 0, which is neutral, that is neither bad nor good. Running off to the right are the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. representing various states of increasing good, and running off to the left are negative numbers, -1, -2, -3, -4, etc. representing various states of being increasingly bad. Here . . .

Just off center, we have states which we might describe as “fortunate” (to the right) and “unfortunate” to the left, maybe a 1 or a 2 in those directions. We don’t hear a story about how someone got wet on the way to work because they forgot their umbrella and scream “Oh, how evil!” or “So joyous!” We would be looked at very oddly were we to do so. Such responses are not appropriate, but “Oh, how unfortunate.” is just about right, no?

A little further out are things like, “I stubbed my toe and I have to go to the doctor” and “I think I am in line for a promotion at work!” Even further out are “I fell and broke my ankle” and “My company has had a huge windfall and is sharing it with us!”

I assume you can see where this is going. Concentrating on the bad side we go further and further out, getting to natural disasters, like floods, sinkholes in your back yard, forest fires threatening your home, etc. And even further out, you get things like “The police mistakenly thought I was some kind of major criminal and actually fired bullets at us!” And farther out than that are accidental deaths or wars that happen in your neighborhood, a la Ukraine.

So, where does the line establishing a demarcation between a really, really bad happenstance and a truly evil occasion get drawn?

Here is where I think there needs to be an additional element. I don’t think hurricanes are ever evil. Horrible, terrible, awful, yes, but evil, no. Evil requires human intent, in my opinion. Something has to be perpetrated with intent and be really bad to be evil. A baby is snatched to replace one that died. Someone deliberately kills a guard while robbing a store, for the thrill of it. Gangs having a requirement that an aspiring member must kill someone randomly on the streets to gain entrance. Now we are talking evils.

As humans, we are for whatever reason attracted to extremes. It is like fish stories, every time they are told, the fish gets bigger and bigger. We exaggerate everything. We use phrases like “I could have died!” when we were merely embarrassed, or “I wanted to die” when in a merely uncomfortable meeting.

Evil events are really quite rare, but not if you were to take people’s claims at face value. A boss, denying a workforce’s request for a raise might be called evil, or a judge putting your spouse in jail for a crime, the same. We push things to extremes, we think there are things like absolute truths and objective morals when all of human experience says otherwise. We live in a grey world insisting that things are black and white.

So, the problem of evil could begin by using more accurate language. When you don’t get that hoped for raise, you are “disappointed” not “Someone should kill that motherfucker!” When a car splashed water on your leg, it is unfortunate but not an act of evil.

It is hard to have discussions like “The problem of evil and suffering: is there a solution?” when our language is hyperbolic and far from accurate.

Addendum I think lumping evil and suffering together (as in the article mentioned) is somewhat disingenuous, as one can suffer from a cold and it is not an existential thing. It also pulls evil back away from the extremes when you have to lump it together with mere suffering, which stretches over the entire negative arm of the number line, while evil does not.


  1. [TOOAIN whispers] You’re all wrong! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by john zande — August 7, 2022 @ 1:34 pm | Reply

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