Podcasts, Evil and Optimism

It has only been recently that I have discovered pod-casts. It has been a good way to learn and keep up with a few things while over in Japan, not least the old stalwart, Radio 4’s In Our Time and early in the year I immensely enjoyed listening to the BBC Reith Lectures given by Michael Sandel. Podcasts are a great modernisation of the Radio for the digital age and proof that despite the increasingly visual nature of our entertainment, that original medium of mass communication and entertainment still has legs, albeit in a less linear form.

Podcasts also open the way for distributing information as “radio” shows that are not broadcast over the airwaves, indeed most of what is available is such, everything from Language Courses, Japanesepod 101 is indispensable to me these days, to News and almost anything else you can think of depending on what you are interested in. One of the better ones I have found is Philosophy Bites; 20 minutes of philosophical discussion on a given subject with a contemporary thinker well versed in that subject, hosted by Nigel Warburton. It has provided plenty of material for thought.

One particular bite of philosophy was with Marilyn McCord Adams who was discussing the age old Problem of Evil. It should be pointed out that McCord Adams is an American Philosopher of Religion, a theologian and an ordained priest in Episcopal Church of America, and her philosophical credentials are not to be taken lightly, but it seemed to me that her arguments provoked a few questions and thoughts in response.

The central tenant of the argument presented by McCord Adams was that in the face of the world’s horrendous and heinous evils to be in any way optimistic about life was to believe in God because only he could be hoped to correct and overturn those evils. This presents the problem of evil as one that affects all of us.

One key problem in this argument is defining what exactly is “evil”. The word brings to mind certain caricatures of the devil and demons in a simplistic sense; on the other hand it draws the mind towards the horrors of the Holocaust. As usual stated in the problem of evil argument, evil is taken to be anything that causes human suffering. By extension McCord Adams asserts that natural disasters of any kind are horrendous evil wrought upon humanity.

I think this assertion starts to raise some questions. It is undebatable that natural disasters cause human suffering and that that is not a good thing, but it is hard to really state that such things are truly evil, let alone horrendous evil.1 Evil surely implies some kind of intent, malevolent intent. If you believe, and have to justify that belief, that God created the world then I can see why natural disasters are a problem, but if one accepts that we live on a rock, floating in space, that is essentially alive and we are but tiny creatures lucky to be have life at all, then natural disasters are just part of life that we have to contend with in our struggle to survive against Mother Nature and not an evil sent to torture us. That the dinosaurs were wiped out be a meteorite was not a moral judgement just bad luck.

This definition of horrendous evil also does an injustice to the suffering inflicted by the Holocaust and other such atrocities. If evil is nothing else then it is the deliberate suffering inflicted by one human being on another. This then is a question of morality and ethics, a debate that does not need to justify God’s part in our suffering or his judgement of our actions, but is only about how we treat each other as humans and the consequences of how we behave to one another. Given that McCord Adams is also what is called a Christian Universalist, something I will return to later, it would be a shame to think that her arguments in anyway deny the weight of evil of the atrocities we have inflicted on ourselves.

The second tenant of McCord Adam’s argument was about the nature of optimism. Simply being hopeful about a better life implies a belief in God as only he can right the wrongs of the world. The simplest counter to this argument would be to think about what life would be like without optimism. Given that there are people in the world suffering everyday what gives them the will to keep going. If there wasn’t something about life that we valued or could be hopeful for then surely we would all just commit suicide and the human race would actually have become extinct a long time ago, marked down as being a race of severe depressives. We are not Lemmings.2

Another possible counter would be that of evolutionary biology, coupled with Schopenhauer’s idea of the “will to live”. Simply put optimism is biologically necessary for the survival and furthering of the species as a whole and fuels our desire to procreate.

A third counter would be that we are forgetting how much power we do have to change and improve our own situation, as evidenced by the progress of human history and the geniuses that have led it from Aristotle, to Da Vinci, to Einstein. We are not entirely helpless when it comes to improving our situation whether as a species or as individuals. At the very least we each have the desire to give our children a better life.

McCord Adam’s view of the nature of optimism also suggests that something outside of this life is needed to bring value to life. Does being loved by and loving someone whether parent, child, husband, wife or friend, depend on for its value something outside of it. Certainly not, it depends only on the love felt by the two people concerned. Belief or not in a deity does not improve or depreciate that love and the value it holds.

I want to return to the afore mentioned theory of Christian Universalism, only because I think it brings to bare some weight on McCord Adam’s arguments. The main thrust of Christian Universalism, is that all, regardless, have been saved from the fires of Hell whether we believe in God or not. This seems like a very attractive suggestion, and seems a sensible, almost humanist, conclusion to some of the quandaries found in theology, about who should and shouldn’t be saved and why. But morally and ethically speaking it is a very dangerous and slippery slope that could lead to the conclusion that no actions in this life whether good or evil have any consequences in the next life or will deny us a part of “heaven”. If we slide down this slope, evil in any sense is meaningless and illusionary and theological discussion of the problem of evil and optimism are pointless.

This is simplistic and perhaps even pessimistic, but sometimes it is useful to take a conclusion to the extreme to see whether it holds. I think it does, however, highlight the continued need to find a moral and ethical philosophy that is measured in this life by reason and sound judgement on an individual and social level, not by subjugation to an external power, whether that is karma or a deity, to reward or punish us for doing good or evil. As pointed out by many great thinkers to base our moral judgement on such external measures is only to act with self-interest and prudence, not to do good for the sole sake of doing good. Surely that is what we should be striving for, doing good simply because it is good.3

September 2009


1. The argument might change slightly as it becomes more apparent that human influence on climate change is affecting many “natural” disasters, but it still would not hold that is caused by a deliberate malevolent intent.

2. Actually it is a myth that Lemmings commit mass suicide.

3. Of course this throws up further questions as to what is good, and how do we measure it etc, but I think we can leave that for another day and to Plato!

Go back