Lecture Notes: The Concepts of Evil

We will examine two kinds of evil in class discussion and assignments: Natural Evil and Moral Evil.

Natural Evil is a privation, a lack of good where good ought to be.

An excellent example of natural evil (a lack of good where good ought to be) is the example of a stone and a man presented to me by Jesuit priest, philosopher, and theologian Fr. Peter Ryan, SJ at Mount St. Mary’s University:

Consider a stone. It cannot see. This lack of sight, however, is not an evil as a stone ought not to see. Sight is not part of what makes up a stone. This is how God created the stone.

Now consider a man. If the man cannot see, this is a natural evil. It is the lack of a good (sight) that ought to be there. Unlike the stone, man was created by God with sight as part of his being.

Moral Evil is a conscious choice to do what one ought not to do; an unethical act.

Every day men and women are faced with choices—some of them good and some of them evil. An evil (or immoral) choice is a decision to do what one should not do. For example: If a person sees an unlocked car with keys in the ignition, he is faced with some choices. He can choose to attempt to find the owner and let him know of the unsecured state of his vehicle, he can ignore the situation and continue on, or he can choose to steal the car. The question becomes one of what the man ought to do. The best, most morally correct option would be the first, if possible. It would be a good.

The second choice is indifferent; it is neither a good nor an evil. Though one could construe the this option as an evil as it leaves the car in a position to be stolen, it does not, however, change the situation for better or worse. It is not a clear-cut choice between good or evil.

The third choice is clearly an evil. A person taking something that does not belong to him it causes harm and undue loss to another. It is an example of what one ought not to do, the choice of a moral evil.

The Role of Suffering

We must also distinguish between evil and suffering. Suffering is not evil. Suffering is the experience of evil. The man who cannot see suffers in his blindness; his suffering is the experience of his lack of sight. Suffering is a concept that is often misunderstood and mistaken for evil.

Consider pain. Both pleasure and pain exist for positive reasons; they are positive realities. Pain is a signal to a person that something is wrong. If one touches a hot burner on a stove, for example, he will experience pain, and quickly pull his hand away from the burner, avoiding further damage to the body. The pain in this case has a positive and saving effect.

Pain for no reason can be an evil. If one experiences pain that is not a signal of something wrong, then the cause of the pain is an evil and the experience of it is suffering.

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