People often call both human wickedness and natural disaster by the same word—evil. In actuality only human malevolence qualifies as evil. Floods, tornados and earthquakes are misfortunes coming at us from indifferent mother nature and our mortal human nature.
There are a variety of ways of dealing with misfortunes: calling on first responders, or stoic resignation, or praying to Providence for Divine intervention. Regarding prayer, many people claim their prayers have been answered. But there are limits to what even Providence can do, short of a miracle. Miracles are claims that God or a saint have taken direction action in human affairs. And some folks are even prone to see the hand of God in absolutely everything that happens.
But let’s face it. Dying is inevitable, even for those who got cured at Lourdes. Twisters and floods happen willy nilly.
Natural misfortunes are just plain old, ordinary trouble—not human moral evil. Of course it is said that nature has her own intelligence of sorts, but not a human-like conscience or free will, both required to assign responsibility. Nature is just nature. She is not fitted out with the wherewithal to be morally responsible for evil. Oh yes—we talk of “Mother Nature.” She is merely a literary device, mostly full of charms, but often accused of playing cruel tricks on people, property and the planet with her natural disasters. In court cases adjudicating injuries or other losses resulting from natural disasters, it is not Mother Nature who is implicated and accused, but God, and His acts of God. Next case.
Evil refers to concrete choices, acts, intentions, and conspiracies of wrong and malice against humans, animals or the environment. To be charged with responsibility and guilt, I was taught in my Church of Roman upbringing that three factors are required. First there has to be a serious matter such as stealing, false witness, destructive anger, murder. Next I would have to be clear headed and fully conscious, and finally I committed the act with full consent of my will. The same algorithm is at work for us to get credit when we choose the good.
On the other hand, the concepts of determinism give us a “get out of jail card” by proposing we are under the influence of forces beyond our control. Are we the playthings of disembodied fate and necessity, or the forces of nature, or instinctual appetites and desires, or predestined by God for salvation or not? OK, so there are lots of ways of avoiding responsibility out there. So? Do you think the man in the street believes he is a automaton or puppet? For purposes of this discussion, we will go with the common man’s sense that he has a free will. Stephen Cave begs to differ in There’s No Such Thing as Free Will (The Atlantic, June 2016).
There is one other burning question about evil that is batted about. This is the question: If God is a loving God, why does God permit evil? Evil, in this question, often slides between the two senses of the word–human malice and human suffering–the very matter we are attempting to clarify.
Regarding the suffering attached to misfortunes of natural disasters, we maintain that it is the sequelae of our contingent human condition. We may wear out, rot from within, or get broken.
Regarding the assumption that God permits malice, or even worse–manipulates it, a short proposed answer is that God is only the observing witness of man’s going off half-cocked. It is we humans ourselves with our free will who are the perpetrators, not God. God, possibly sorrowfully, observes what fools and knaves men be, but God steps back. It is we humans who can be traced to the scene of the crimes, not God.
Types of Evil
We’ve seen above what it takes to be responsible for evil. Now as to the types of evil, here are 4 types according to Levi Ashe in Philosophy Weekend: The Four Types of Evil (Literary Kicks, July 17, 2010).
-“Demonic or sadistic evil is evil for its own sake, performed for the express purpose of harming others.” Crowned heads, famous generals, and evil geniuses throughout history have been full of this.
-“Instrumental evil occurs in order to carry out some other purpose. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the hazardous by-product of an aggressive business venture.”
-“Idealistic evil is ‘justified’ by some assumed greater cause.” Hitler, Chairman Mao, Osama bin Laden, George Armstrong Custer, or Winston Churchill in India were “motivated by what they considered to be lofty ideals.” Talk to the people who were crushed by all that lousy, lofty idealism.
-“Stupid evil occurs based on human incompetence, despite the fact that nobody wished it. Examples: a plane crash due to an easily avoidable pilot error,” or all the pollution that is taking place around the world in the name of progress.
Nature blesses us and also visits us with catastrophe. Humankind gives us Mozart, Buddha, Muhammed, and pumpkin pie. Humankind also throws up Alexander the Great Marauder, Winston Churchill advocating use of poison gas, countless other monsters, and the guy down the street who shoots his neighbor. Both evil people and natural misfortunes are our lot. Regarding the latter, at times we are naught but victims, part of the food chain. Regarding human malevolence, we try to balance it with charity, justice, inspired teachers, and celebrations like Christmas Eve, Halloween, or birthday parties.
“Epicurus’s old questions are still unanswered: Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? then whence evil?” [meaning where does evil come from if not God?]
― David Hume.