Friday, December 05, 2008

The Other Problem of Evil

Like many, I'm completely astonished by the Mumbai attacks. Not only because there an exorbitant amount of pain and suffering, of frustration and impotence, of relentless destruction of conspecifics, but also because there is an almost absolute lack of understanding. Terror, as this pure and unqualified instance of evil, is a problem. But not the traditional problem.

There are, at least, two substantial problems when trying to explain evil. For historical reasons, I suppose, the Angloamerican tradition appears to focus more one of them: whether or not the existence of Evil is inconsistent with the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient god. I doubt that any kind of argument will be good enough to prove, against the theist, that god does not exist. Theists are not looking for proofs but faith. And faith does not seem to shy away from contradictions. For what it's worthy, my opinion is that this is not an interesting issue to debate upon. But that requires an argument that I will not offer.

Still, there is another, more substantial, problem of evil. Forget about the godly question and focus on the following one: what on earth is evil? where does it come from? why is there any? There are several intuitions that seem to be in tension. First of all, Evil, pure Evil, seems to me to be absolutely unnecessary. It is not only that it is easy to imagine a world without acts of Terror, it's also that a world with Terror seems to have absolutely no advantages for anyone whatsoever. It's not good for the victims, not good for the perpetrators, not good for their kin (or the victim's), and clearly not good for the so called "cause" (if any) guiding the act of terror. If it does not benefit absolutely anyone and it is, clearly, not an instance of an inevitable natural phenomenon, why on earth does it happen?

Back in the day, Socrates seemed to have an answer: ignorance. People engage in acts of evil not because it helps them in any direct or indirect way, or because, in reality, there is something good about evil-doing. People, thought he, are evil-doers because they don't know better. Suppose for an instance that this is correct, and then try to understand the recent events under this light. Don't be scared by the incredible complexity of the act of Terror. Try not to focus so much in the months of planning, the resources spent, the indoctrination, the preparation, the perfection. These all require intelligence and wit, but not wisdom. Or so the account should say. The terrorists still did not know better.

I'm wondering though, how smart, sensitive, or special do you need to be in order to know better and not engage in acts of pure evil? The attackers seemed to be quite smart and well prepared, it does not seem like they were cognitively impaired in any relevant sense. Are we simply to assume that, because they in fact did the wrong thing, they must have been impaired somehow? That even though they prepared so well they missed some important bit of information? I have trouble accepting this. It seems to make good-doing incredibly hard to achieve. No matter how much thinking you put to it, you might very well end up being ignorant enough to do the wrong thing.

I don't like this not because I think it is easy to do the right thing, but because it seems to make of evil-doing something almost necessary for human life. It's just so difficult not to do it, that it turns to be unavoidable. That seems to block the road for us. On the one hand, pure evil seems completely gratuitous (if not stupid). On the other hand, it seems unavoidable. Are we to think that we are necessarily destined to be stupid and brutally so?

That still needs an explanation. I still can't believe the Mumbai (or any other) attacks. How can someone be so damn stupid?