The tragic events in Boston and West, Texas, with Newtown so recent in our lives force us to confront the question of evil, to which there is no easy answer. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a useful conversation about it. Let me suggest that in general terms we can talk about two types of evil: natural and moral, and maybe that’s the place to start so that we can have a place to begin our conversation.
Natural evils are the destructive events that come upon us through the force of nature. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and the like are examples of natural evil, and they are evil in the sense that they cause destruction of property, and death and injury to people. They are not moral evils because no human agency called them into being, they are the ordinary and necessary products of a living earth hurtling through a living universe. We have the misfortune of getting in their way and suffering because of it. We made decisions to live and build in places where natural events like these are common, and we take our chances because of it. At the same time, natural events that are destructive of our lives and property can occur in any place and at any time, so no matter where we are, we are always going to be confronted by nature’s power, and we need to be respectful of it.
Moral evils, on the other hand, are the destructive events that come upon us through human agency, and it gets complicated. We usually think of a moral decision as one that is good and proper by the standards of the society in which we live, but in this sense, a moral decision means any decision that intends to do good or bad, regardless of the reason. The slaughter of children at Newtown was the insane act of a troubled man who intended to kill and cause grief that cannot be healed. It was a moral evil brought upon us by the intentional act of a person, whatever the condition of his mind. We do not know the motives of the Boston bomber(s). Whatever they were, they were intentional. He, she or they intended to cause destruction, injury, death and panic. It was a moral decision, and that makes it a moral evil.
Both are outrageous examples of moral evil, and we are united in finding them repulsive beyond words that can describe our feelings. Sadly, we are not ourselves totally innocent when it comes to moral evil. Our grudges, anger, fear, impatience, selfishness, and prejudices often seduce us into acts of moral evil. They are the ordinary sins of daily life, if you will, that lead us to confess that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, and often we have not loved ourselves very much either. Sometimes we cause real physical injury to others, but more often we cause emotional and spiritual injury, small or great, by our hurtful words and deeds.
That brings us to the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. It’s a real event of great human carnage and property damage that is also symbolic of other disasters like it that occur far too often. What happened? It was not a natural evil, but would it be fair to call it a moral evil? Maybe it was just an accident. We build things, and everything we build is imperfect. We run imperfect things with imperfect knowledge, skills and abilities. Our goal is to do the best we can with what we have. That doesn’t always work.
I recall a recent local factory fire caused by a worker who skipped a few safety checks when mixing chemicals. He didn’t intend to cause a fire. He may not have known about the importance of the safety checks, or what would happen if he skipped them. Yet property damage occurred. A few years ago I threw up a ladder to scramble into a garage attic. I didn’t bother to check if it was well anchored, and the trip down was unpleasant. It wasn’t just the excruciating pain. It also costs thousands in ambulance, hospital and doctor bills while disrupting my ability to do the work of pastor and rector. I didn’t intend all of that to happen, but it did anyway caused by my impatience and tendency to do things in the order of ready, fire, aim.
Neither of these incidences can be labeled a moral evil, but moral decisions were a part of them, and real destruction and injury were the result. Moreover, they are the kinds of decisions we all make every day.
At the same time, as in recent incidents involving coal mines and cruise ships for example, there are events that are the result of decisions motivated by selfishness, greed, and egotistical pride showing callous disregard for the well being of others, particularly others with little ability to protect themselves. One might claim that there was no intent to cause harm, but the lack of intent in the face utter disregard for the lives and property of others adds up to moral evil.
The question of evil is not an easy one. It gets tangled up and very messy. But perhaps this can be a framework for a conversation to begin.
I hope so.