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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Wickedness; A Philosophical Essay by Mary Midgley (Routledge Classics: Routledge) To look into the darkness of the human soul is a frightening venture. Here Mary Midgley does so, with her customary brilliance and clarity. In Wickedness she beguiles us with her exacting prose always full of felicitous formulations by setting out to delineate not so much the nature of wickedness as its actual sources. Midgley's analysis proves that the capacity for real wickedness is an inevitable part of human nature. Her naturalism always comes forth with startling moral challenges.

Excerpt: Wickedness means intentionally doing acts that are wrong. But can this ever happen?

During the past century, wickedness has been made to look somewhat mythical in our part of the world. Many doubts have been raised about whether such a phenomenon can actually occur at all. On the one hand, our increasing knowledge of the variety of cultures has made it seem obscure whether any act can be really and objectively wrong. On the other hand, various scientific systems that describe other forms of causation have undermined the idea of free‑will. They have made it hard to see how our intentions can really be the source of our acts.

During that same century, however, the phenomenon we call 'wickedness' has certainly not gone away. Nor has it become any easier to understand; indeed, it presses on us more than ever. For instance, if we think about the Nazi holocaust and other holocausts‑for we had better not forget others such as those in Russia and Cambodia and genocides such as that in Rwaiida‑‑questions about the meaning of wickedness weigh heavily on us. They do so, too, when we hear of multiple killers, as in the recent story of Dr Harold Shipman, the Manchester GP Who seems to have killed some 300 people while apparently remaining a normal member of society.

It does not seem easy to simplify these cases into any tidy form which we can pack away in pigeon‑holes along with the more straightforward parts of our knowledge. It is hard to do this because we inevitably ask what it is like to be one of these people‑‑‑people who, for instance, devise death‑camps.

From various scientific quarters we have been told that we should view these people fatalistically, as helpless mechanisms, merely inert tools or vehicles driven by their genes or by their cultures. That would put the issue on the scientific shelf hat if we did this we would have to view ourselves also as tools or vehicles of the same kind. And if we really, seriously believed this‑instead of just saying it‑it would scarcely be possible for us to get through the day. Life would become impossible, not because our dignity would be offended, but at a much deeper level, because that situation would make all our choices seem meaningless.

Does any other way of simplifying make better sense? Ought we perhaps‑as philosophers like Nietzsche and Sartre have suggested‑see these people as acting freely, indeed, but: as being original moralists, authentically inventing new values which are in principle no less valid than those that are respected elsewhere?

This suggestion proposes an exciting, romantic idea of individual freedom; but again, if consistently followed through, it seems to make ordinary life impossible. If there can be no basis

of agreement on these subjects‑if each of us wanders alone in a moral vacuum, spinning values out of our own entrails like spiders, making them up somehow out of our own originality, taking nothing from anybody else and passing nothing on to others‑then we have ceased to be social creatures altogether. Most of the occupations that interest us must then evaporate, because they are essentially social. They depend on shared values. And we shall certainly then have no shared vocabulary in which to say what we think about actions such as devising death‑camps.

Of course these skeptical ideas do not have to be taken to their logical conclusions in this way. Usually they are not so taken. They are merely thrown out in extreme forms, used casually in bits and pieces where they happen to come in handy, and forgotten where they might make difficulties. In fact they are half‑truths: one‑sided proposals with a useful aspect which needs to be balanced by their other halves and then integrated into a wider framework.

At present, however, not much of this integration is being done. On the whole, these ideas wander about loose in various forms and combinations of immoralism, relativism, subjectivism and determinism‑‑forms which it is often quite difficult to understand and to distinguish. That is why, in this book, I have tried to sort them out and to ask how we can best understand and deal with them.

I have stressed that it is important to see that they are not just perverse aberrations, and to grasp the positive point of these ways of thinking. They arise largely out of two central strands of Enlightenment thought. On the one hand, morally‑these skepticisms have flowed from an admirable reaction against the gross abuses that long attended the practices of blame and punishment, and that still do so. On the other hand‑in the realm of knowledge they express a determination to make human conduct as intelligible scientifically as the rest of the physical world.

These are both noble aims, which is why the skeptical views in question have suggested many necessary reforms. But even the noblest aims, if they are pursued in isolation, uncritically, and without regard for other aspects of life, are liable to drag us off to paradoxical conclusions which we ought not to accept.

Originally, I wrote this book in order to deal with business that I knew was left over from my first book, Beast and Man.' There, my aim was to stress the benign side of human nature. I wanted to say there that we should not be afraid of our 'animal nature.' We should not deny our continuity with the other social animals out of a groundless fear of degradation. I pointed out that these animals are not embodied vices, not the grotesque stereotypes that our morality has often depicted. They really are our kin. They are like us in much of their emotional life; creatures who share with us many (though of course not all) of the qualities that we most value. So it is wrong to build human self‑esteem solely on our difference from them, wrong to make our pride depend on finding a quality that completely 'differentiates us from the beasts.' This kind of attempt to congratulate ourselves on being pure, autonomous intellects, immune from dependence on our earthly inheritance, is unrealistic and it distorts our system of values.

I still think that all this is true and hugely important. But if we are to accept it honestly we need to notice the darker side of that inheritance as well. We need to grasp clearly how appallingly human beings sometimes behave. And we must see that we cannot always shift responsibility for that behavior off onto an abstraction called 'culture.' (Culture, after all, is made by people.) There have to be natural motives present in humans which make cruelty and related vices possible.

It surely emerges that our natural motivation is highly ambivalent. It is so rich that it is full of conflicts, which present us constantly with a moral dialectic. On the one hand, our inborn emotional constitution is our only source of ideas about what is good. It is the root of all our wishes. On the other, that constitution does not itself supply a ready‑made priority system by which we can arbitrate among those wishes when they clash. And some of those wishes are such that, if followed out on their own, they lead to real disaster.

We are not seraphs, beings who would never have these dangerous wishes and would therefore never have to choose. But neither are we quite like the other social animals. They also have conflicts and choices of this kind, but they seem to make their choices quickly, without a lot of reflection. Our trouble is that we have taken the exciting but dangerous course of opting, during our evolution, to become far more clearly conscious of these choices and far more likely to reflect on them afterwards. That is why we, unlike those animals, absolutely have to find such a priority system. It is why we cannot live without some kind of morality, and why in fact every human culture has one.

This point about the relation between morality and our natural feelings is a very complex one, and I went on to investigate it in a later book, The Ethical Primate. That book, which deals with the nature of human freedom, is really a sequel to my discussions of moral skepticism in this book. I thought it was necessary to confront this moral skepticism first because, if I did not, my (and Darwin's) somewhat ambitious claims for the importance of morality on the human scene would not sound convincing.

It seemed to me that this kind of skepticism‑not in the sense of a readiness to make enquiries, but of a fairly dogmatic profession of disbelief in morality as a whole‑was both surprisingly influential at present and also surprisingly obscure. I was particularly struck by the way in which students of philosophy would express quite strong views on some moral question and then, when that question began to get difficult, readily say 'Well, it's all just a matter of your own subjective point of view, isn't it . . .?' I also thought it interesting that they often made remarks like 'But surely it's ALWAYS WRONG to make moral judgments?' without (apparently) noticing that this is itself a moral judgment. I therefore discussed the status of moral judgment at some length both in this book and also in another, slightly simpler one called Can't We Make Moral Judgments?


Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy by Stephen T. Davis (Westminster John Knox Press) does a fine job selecting scholars who represent various, major viewpoints on the classic problem of evil to elucidate their positions. John Roth represents a theodicy of protest whereby it is insinuated that God may not be totally good. God, says Roth, has a dark side and so must be persuaded by human protest and prayer to do what is right. Hick, of course, represents the position of an Irenean theodicy where God is portrayed as simply unable to stop all evil since evil is born our of free will and God cannot contradict the free will He gave us (lest it cease being free will). More than that, however, God has created a world in which trouble and evil exist in order that, by virtue of our free will, we might grow in character through the hardship. God, says Hick, is in the business of soul-making and has an overall plan for us as His creation to grow into spiritual maturity through the joys and sufferings of this life. Davis takes the classic Christian perspective position that evil is the result of human sin, that Jesus died to redeem us of that sin. We are responsible for the evil in the world, but God has created a way to redeem the world by taking sin on Himself in the form of Jesus Christ. By recieving Christ into our lives, not only are we promised a future in eternity without evil, but we are able to grow through the sufferings of life instead of shun them as worthless. He argues that there is no logical contradiction between the Biblical God (omnipotent and omnibenevolent) and the existence of evil in the world. Griffin represents the process theology position that God is evolving with the creation and so is learning as He goes. Matter, says Griffin, is eternal like God and has its own kind of "free will." Complexity in the arrangement of matter, furthermore, is tied to the amount of free will something has. Thus a rock can do less evil and yet God is less able to use it for good, but something as complex (and thus having more free will) as a human is capable of doing much more evil by resisting God and much more good by submitting to God. Finally, Sontag takes a highly skeptical position about God's goodness. God is unpredictable and violent at times and all we can do is hope for the best. We must acknowledge God's existence and power, but Sontag's god is semi-demonic in nature which explains evil in the world and why he doesn't stop it.

Of course, this small review doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the indepth and well written arguments of each of these scholars. The book is complex enough for college and graduate classes but written with the lay-person in mind as well (the writers are careful to define their terms in most cases). Also, I really enjoyed the fact that each contributor has the opportunity to critique the other's theodicies and then the chance to defend against the other's critiques. This point/counterpoint approach was excellent and informative.

My only critique of this book is the subtitle ("Live Options in Theodicy"). While the five views represented in this book are indeed reflective of five major worldviews of the problem of evil, they are not the only *live* options. To suggest so implies that any theodicy significantly different than those represented in the book is not a valid option. But because the problem of evil is more of a mystery and less of a logical problem to be solved with a fancy syllogism, it can be approached in a number of ways -- not just five.


This is the second edition of Encountering Evil. The book first appeared in 1981. Since that year, it has been widely read, commented upon, and discussed. Those of us who were involved in writing the book are gratified by the many instructors at universities, colleges, and theological seminaries across the country that have adopted it as a text for a course. We frequently encounter students and professors alike who testify to having profited from the book.

Doubtless the book is valuable for several reasons. One, of course, is its topic. No subject in philosophy or religion strikes closer to home than the problem of evil. In the normal course of life, people frequently find themselves asking questions like, "Why did this happen to me?" or "How can God allow such a thing as that?" Suffering is a topic of perennial interest. A second reason, in my opinion, for the book's value is that a great many intellectual options are covered in it. Indeed, virtually all the available Christian options on the theodicy problem are defended and/or criticized. The third and most frequently commented-on aspect of the book is its format, which, so far as I know, was unique in 1981. Many other books since then have adopted similar structures. Students have told me that the back-and-forth format makes the issues clear and causes the debate to come alive for them.

Why publish a new edition? Primarily because those scholars who were involved in writing the first edition have continued to think and learn and grow intellectually in the intervening years, and this includes our thinking about the problem of evil. A great deal has been written about the problem of evil since 1981, some of it of real value. While all of us continue to defend roughly the positions we espoused in 1981, we want to show where our thinking has changed and our arguments have sharpened on this critical intellectual and theological problem.

But what exactly is the problem of evil? Why is our world so full of violence and suffering? Is there a reason?

This very "Why?" question forms the subject matter of this book: the problem of evil. One way to introduce the problem is to ask for whom is it a problem. The usual answer is that the problem of evil is a problem for theism. But what exactly is theism? Let me attempt to define the term. Although not intentionally polemical, the definition I offer is not neutral either. Doubtless many people will disagree with it, including some of the contributors to this book. Nevertheless, let me define "theism" as the belief that the world was created by an omnipotent and perfectly good being. Theism takes many forms. There are Christian theists, Jewish theists, Moslem theists, and many other theists. What holds them together, I believe, is their common commitment to the view of God stated above.

Five facets of theistic belief deserve comment at this juncture: (1) There is one God.

Theism, as I define it here, is a form of monotheism. (2) God created the world.

Theists claim that the world came into existence because of a decision on God's part and so is dependent on God. The world is a contingent thing. (3) God is omnipotent.

This statement is controversial among theists. Let me suggest that God is omnipotent if and only if for any logically possible state of affairs such that the statement that "God brings about that state of affairs" is coherent, God can bring about that state of affairs.

(4) God is personal.

Theists say that God is a conscious being who has thoughts, intentions, desires, and will. In addition, unlike the God of the eighteenth-century Deists, God is concerned about and deeply interested in the lives of the creatures. Accordingly, God continues providentially to influence the world even after creation.

(5) God is perfectly good.

This statement, too, is controversial as to its precise meaning. Let me suggest it means that God never does what is morally wrong; all God's intentions and actions are morally right. In addition, theism claims that God is benevolent and loving toward the creatures; God never causes any sort of suffering unless overriding moral reasons exist for doing so (e.g., it will lead to a greater good if God does so). God works for the good of the creatures.

The problem of evil is the most serious intellectual difficulty for theism. The heart of the problem is the simple question: Why does God permit evil? Of course, this problem is practical as well as intellectual; the question deeply troubles all sorts of people. The problem of evil causes many sensitive theists to have doubts, perhaps even to question the truth of theism. For such a person, responding to the problem of evil is a spiritual as well as an intellectual necessity. But the question interests nontheists as well. Many such people say that the problem of evil is the main obstacle preventing them from embracing theism. Such people will also be deeply interested in responses to the problem of evil.

Although nontheists can be bothered by the question, why does God permit evil? The problem of evil is only a problem in the broad context of theistic religion. People who deny that God is perfectly good have less trouble answering the question: Evil exists because God's demonic side leads God to create evil. People who deny that God is omnipotent also find answering the question easier. Evil exists, they can say, because God does not have the power to prevent the existence of evil. Theists can take neither route. Accordingly, the question of evil is much harder for them to answer.

The problem is that if God is omnipotent (as defined above), God must be able to prevent evil (the state of affairs of no evil existing seems precisely the sort of state of affairs an omnipotent being can bring about). And if God is perfectly good, God must be willing to prevent evil. But if God is both able and willing to prevent evil, why does evil exist? Why do children die of inoperable cancer of the throat? Why do innocent people suffer in prison? Why do earthquakes and tornadoes and famines cause pain and death? Why do people be, steal, and kill? Thus, in an oft-quoted passage, David Hume asks about God: "Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both willing and able? Whence then is evil?"

But even this argument is still a bit vague. Precisely how is the problem of evil a problem? Precisely how does it constitute a threat to theism? Surely the problem must be more than just a set of questions that embarrass theists. People who use the problem of evil to criticize theism appear to take two main approaches. The first approach is logical: theists are said to be in some sort of logical difficulty because they hold all three of the following statements:

(3) God is omnipotent, (5) God is perfectly good, and (a new one)

(6) Evil exists.

But these three statements-so the critic claims-form an inconsistent set of statements. That is, they cannot all be true; the truth of any two of them implies the falsity of the third. Theism is thus a contradictory position because it involves acceptance of the following logically inconsistent statement:

(7) God is omnipotent, and God is perfectly good, and evil exists. (which is merely the conjunction of [3], [5], and [6]). Theists simply contradict themselves.

The second approach is epistemological, holding not that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of a perfectly good and omnipotent God but rather that it constitutes powerful evidence against the existence of such a God. That is, the existence of evil in the world constitutes very good reason to disbelieve or at least seriously doubt the existence of the God of theism. Both approaches are serious prima facie threats to theism, but a second distinction should be made. Some critics of theism emphasize that the problem of evil is created for theists given the existence of any amount of evil in the world, however small. Other critics emphasize the problem of evil as being created by the actual amount of evil that exists in the world. What is said to constitute a threat to theism is not that evil exists but that too much evil exists. Still other critics emphasize surd evil-evil that is superfluous or morally unjustified. The problem of evil, they say, is created by the fact that at least some of the evil that exists in the world is surd evil.

A third distinction should also be made-between two sorts of evil, moral evil and natural evil. Roughly, moral evil is wrongdoing or suffering brought about by moral agents such as human beings. Moral evil is often called "sin"; it includes such things as pride, envy, lying, murder, selfishness, robbery, greed, etc. Roughly, natural evil (sometimes called physical evil) is pain and suffering brought about by such natural events as earthquakes, diseases, famines, floods, etc. (These terms are sometimes defined in a slightly different way, such that moral evil means sin [having exclusively to do with intentions, not consequences] and physical evil means suffering [whether caused by human or nonhuman agents]. However, our terminology in this book reflects the first way of making the distinction.)

The word "theodicy" appears in the subtitle of this book. Derived from the Greek words for God (Theos) and justice (dike), theodicy is the word traditionally used in theology for an argument that attempts to show that God is righteous or just despite the presence of evil in the world. Such an argument tries to show that God can be omnipotent and perfectly good despite evil. However, some of the "theodicies" contained in this book do not involve attempts to retain belief in divine omnipotence and perfect goodness (not all the contributors are theists, as I have defined the term). Furthermore, in the case of some contributors to the book, opinions differ whether they can legitimately call themselves "theists" (as I have defined the term). Some may fairly call themselves theists because they accept the belief that the world was created by an omnipotent and perfectly good moral being, even though they disagree with some of the comments I made subsequently about this belief.

Accordingly, I propose to use the word theodicy in a broader way. For our purposes, let us say that a theodicy is any response to the problem of evil from the perspective of Judeo-Christian religious belief, broadly construed. In this sense, all the contributors to this book are "theodicists" because all have religious beliefs within that tradition and all are deeply concerned about responding to evil from the perspective of those beliefs.


The design of the book is as follows. Each chapter consists of three sections. The first and longest section is the contributor's theodicy or (in some cases) antitheodicy. Each writing is the author's attempt to explain his latest thinking on the problem of evil; in the case of many if not all of us, criticisms of our previous writings have caused us to do at least some rethinking. The second section in each chapter consists of critical responses to the chapter's main essay, written by the other four main contributors. The third section in each chapter consists of the contributor's attempt to defend his theodicy or antitheodicy against the criticism presented.

Our method in writing the book was as follows: the main essays were written first and during the same period. They were then collected and distributed to the five contributors, at which point the critiques were written. The critiques, too, were then collected and distributed, at which point the final responses to the critiques were written. With the exception of the editor, no one saw anyone else's work at any point in the process until everyone did.

The result of this exchange, I believe, is fascinating and illuminating for a number of reasons besides the high caliber of the contributors. The first is the great variety of approaches represented here. The reader will find stylistic, methodological, and substantive differences among the authors, as well as disagreement on other fundamental issues in theology besides the problem of evil. Griffin, for example, is a Process thinker, i.e., one who approaches theology from the perspective of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. Hick is a philosopher of religion and theologian who approaches religious issues from a global perspective, with the various religions and cultures of the world always in view. Roth is a liberal Protestant who writes from an existential perspective that has been heavily influenced by Jewish thinking and the Holocaust. Phillips is a Wittgensteinian philosopher of religion. And Stephen T Davis is an analytic philosopher by training and a Reformed and evangelical Christian by persuasion.

The second reason I believe many will find this book fascinating and illuminating is the give-and-take found in the discussion sections. This volume is not an ordinary anthology containing just a collection of articles on some subject. Instead, each contributor subjects the other main essays to searching criticism and is forced to defend his own. Our hope is that the reader's understanding of the problem of evil will be significantly deepened and that, upon finishing the book, the reader will have had some assistance in deciding which approach to the problem of evil, if any, is most promising.

One interesting fact to emerge from recent discussions of the problem of evil is that the paradigm evil event to which virtually all theodicists now refer including all the contributors to this book-is the Holocaust, i.e., the murder of six million Jews and millions of others by the Nazis during World War II. At one time the paradigm evil event referred to by theodicists was the infamous Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755. Followed by fires and even a flood of the Tagus, the disaster destroyed the city and killed tens of thousands of people. The Lisbon earthquake is an example of natural evil; the Holocaust exemplifies moral evil. Although both events are apt symbols of human suffering, that the one has replaced the other in our minds as the evil event is perhaps fitting. We who have just lived through the twentieth century-with its advances in technology, with the rise of mass organization and totalitarian political ideologies-are acutely conscious of the tremendous power human beings have to inflict suffering on each other.

Let me then pose this question for the authors and readers of this book: Are there any theodicies, represented here or elsewhere, that are credible when trying to account for the Holocaust?


Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil
by Bernard McGinn
$29.95, hardcover; 369 pages
ISBN 0-06-065543-7


McGinn's is a refreshing historical religious romp through the dark side of millenarianism. McGinn is probably one of the most esteemed historians of Christian spirituality writing today. His major study of mysticism is winning universal acclaim. This project on evil offers the best general account of evil in a historical religious doctrine survey since Jeffrey Burton Russell's tetralogy (published Cornell University Press) on the devil completed about a decade ago. All these portents of doom have held meaning as end times for many people who lived through them. McGinn offers a smorgasbord of views of the Antichrist to fuel the theological imagination.

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