Do we need to believe in the reality of evil to be moral? Dr Peter Sedgewick from St Michael’s College, Cardiff offered some provocative thoughts on this subject at last night’s Cafe, presenting an atheist’s position (drawing on Albert CamusThe Plague) and some ideas from a theist’s point of view by way of contrast. The central issue here, it was proposed, lies in what motivates us to struggle against suffering. In a universe which is without value and purpose, such as might be imagined to underlie a purely mechanistic scientific worldview, is it impossible to take suffering seriously?

Dr Sedgewick proposed that we understand Camus’ novel as a depiction of such a universe in microcosm, in which nonetheless some (such as the heroic Dr Rieux) choose to take action, to seek to end the plague. It is only through this kind of action that a real difference between evil and good can, in Camus’ godless universe, be made. Value is not given to human beings,

Albert Camus, Nobel prize winner, half-length ...
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it is created through their will. This paradox (that objective, real value) can only be put into the universe through the subjective actions of humans, defines Camus’ depiction of the human condition.

For the theist, by contrast, real value and purpose can be discovered in the universe, through religious practice and teaching that leads the individual to seek to understand what the relationship between a creator god and creation might be. Dr Sedgewick offered several analogies to illustrate how this relationship between creator purposeful universe might be imagined, including an artisan and his/her work, and between a parent and, not a child as such, but the environment the parent creates in which the child grows into an individual in her own right. In the theist’s view, evil is itself nothing, as it cannot genuinely create anything – it is the urge to undo what has been created. But the ultimate ground for distinguishing good from evil is not then the human will, but to be sought in religious understanding and practice.

In discussion, the question of what motivates us to use the word “evil” came to the fore early on – does it have real content, or is it used first and foremost to shore up one’s own sense of identity? Nonetheless, there was a feeling that it served to indicate a rallying point for our sense of common humanity, a viewpoint which seems quite close to Camus. The idea that we cannot confront suffering without, at some point, seeking such a rallying point, was debated, as well as many other issues, including the extent to which evil can be done by humans to non-humans, and whether the idea of metaphysical evil – evil as part of the tissue of the universe- makes any sense outside a religious frame of reference at all.

You can listen to a streamed version of Dr Sedgewick’s talk by clicking on the “play” arrow below, or download an MP3 here.

Any comments? We’d particularly welcome reflections on the session from participants.

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One thought on “Evil, Nothingness and Value”

  1. Hearing people’s opinions after the event I found that Peter Sedgewick’s talk was considered informed, and was generally very well received. On our table there was, nevertheless, and I am not just speaking for myself, more than mere frustration about the direction of the talk – it did not seem to be about the nature of evil per se, which we had expected to some degree. Despite what else was being said in the talk, there was a nagging annoyance and confusion over the use of this term: it seemed that it was being used loosely as a synonym for suffering. This use was challenged a number of times, but the speaker avoided its definition or meaning (which we all know anyway), by reminding us that the talk was about humanity’s approach to suffering in general and not about its specific manifestations. But the distinction MUST be made between evil and suffering if we are going to talk about whether, or how, we can supposedly approach them.

    This failure to tackle the nature of evil and to distinguish it from suffering haunted our table for the rest of the talk. There was, again for our table, a great difference between asking how we should approach suffering to how we should approach evil.

    So it was that I began to wonder if Camus, one of the philosopher-bards introduced by Peter, had anything to say about “evil” in view of the fact that he was an atheist and the cause of much of the difficulties tonight. Camus, it turns out from a quick internet search, equates evil with ignorance, the sort of ignorance behind the intention to execute, murder, and commit needless casual hurts; fair enough – but surely we cannot include mere intentionless “suffering” among them. Those on our table, and those from one or two others, thought that this was going too far. The issue was left unresolved, yet we were continually reminded of it in such questions as “is suffering a problem”.

    Even armed with the knowledge that Camus DID specify a well-known property, what have you, of evil, I could not, then and now, get rid of the suspicion that “evil” as we viscerally are acquainted with it (and who would deny such acquaintance?) is considered to be something of an embarrassment among contemporary philosophers, theists, and bards who perhaps see it as too risky to put before an often sceptical public. It gives off too much smoke, too much fire and brimstone: “evil” had been, some time ago I thought, politely told to leave the academic party, and that there were new, more trendy ways of tackling its philosophy, ways that would avoid the word and avoid accusations of indulging in horror kitsch.

    Thus my question to Peter Sedgwick, “has religion (and philosophy) abandoned metaphysics for psychology?” For it seems that the embarrassment occasioned by the word “evil” is simply too great for modern thinkers who may prefer to launch the word in sociological mazes or veil its immodesties by invoking a little Derridean indeterminacy of meaning. It is no coincidence, I have noticed, that Buddhism and Christianity are often seen picking up the reins of psychology and adopting its sanitised language.

    Now to the PHILOSOPHY!
    Why would Camus take an experience- nihilism, hopelessness or “no-exit” and cast it among the stars as indifference? Why not, like the Christian for example, retain nihilism as our own and cast life and meaning among the stars?

    A reason for rejecting this Christian proposal might be, for Camus, and for atheists generally we must suppose, is that a life-meaningful universe goes too far, especially if we suppose that, just as for life forms, there is an autonomous agent at its core – called God in this case. Thus we are reminded of atheistic talk of other impossible, imaginary physical objects, like unicorns, in the context of a physically present omnipotent God.

    – But wait a minute. What is Camus or the atheist and humanist, and indeed the Christian up to here? What need is there to expel any part of our nature onto the stars, or anywhere else? As a lady on my table asked, more than once, how can the question

    “What is the problem of suffering?”

    make sense? We have fraudulently, by asking such a question (and as Camus asked it, as the atheist, the humanist and the Christian ask it), expelled (onto the stars) a part of our nature – suffering in Camus’ case, life and autonomy in the Christian case, and established a relationship between the fragment and what’s left of the whole. Because, after all, suffering is itself the problem. It doesn’t become one, or be caused by one, except in other, unrelated contexts, such as our having a problem with its spelling. Maltreating the grammar of the word “suffering” in this way – by hiving off a part of it and claiming a relationship between the parts, has led us into absurdities with other words. For example, the problem with a stress situation is that it causes stress!

    To summarise, Camus seems to be guilty of a certain animistic gesture – the attribution of a part of our nature onto the unblinking stars. This attribution requires some linguistic cobbling together, where “the problem of suffering” is out there, outside of suffering, and we just have to grin and bear it, with an inside Camusian-joy, as best we can. On the other hand, the Christian can be guilty of the same gesture, but then he can escape Camus’ clutches, and the atheists’, if instead of projecting bits of our nature without he keeps them all within; and maybe a god too, though, for many, this claims too much in other ways.

    Meanwhile, I am still a little annoyed with the academic confusion, deliberately engineered, I have thought for some time, over the term “evil”. It is as if filters are being applied that redraw what we can legitimately experience and talk about. And that was, I thought, the flitting shadow that the talk occassionaly cast on our table tonight.

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