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 Camus‘ The 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,
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.