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  • Accounting for Evil—Justification or Explanation?A Response to Eliot Deutsch
  • Gwen Griffith-Dickson, DirectorVisiting Professor

I am both grateful and gratified that Professor Deutsch has taken the time not only to read what was intended as an undergraduate teaching text, but also to comment on it with characteristic thoughtfulness and perspicacity.

Deutsch has put his finger unerringly on a muddled point in contemporary discussions of the problem of evil. As in everyday discourse, there is potential ambiguity about the seemingly innocuous English word 'understand,' which in colloquial speech is equivocal, indicating either cognitive mastery or an empathy verging on implicit agreement or consent: 'It's all right, I understand.' Intending the one provokes reactions directed at the other; comprehending the significance of evil and suffering in our existence is treated as if it somehow 'justifies' evil states of affairs. For example, Mesle has written that if good comes from evil, that means evil is really good, and to say, as many religious people do, that all things ultimately work toward the good is to say that nothing is really evil.1 More subtly, a commentator such as Terence Tilley can argue that the act of theodicy, understood as 'justifying evil,' is in fact evil itself.2 Deutsch is unusual in teasing apart these senses in his neatly framed dichotomy: evil needs to be understood, but it cannot be justified.

Let me immediately and briefly answer Deutsch's question on my own view about 'understanding' and 'justifying' evil. Any evil act can be understood—yes, any, if we have the courage, the wisdom, and the empathetic imagination—even the most unspeakable atrocity. But none of it, perhaps, is or ever should be justifiable. Not even the smallest act of petty spite.

Contemporary writing on the problem of evil in Western philosophy of religion is full of good impulses; but it is like walking on a narrow mountain trail: one slip and you've overbalanced in a way that can take everything down with you. Here is my attempt to clarify some of the issues that form the foundation for Deutsch's question and our shared response. We also share a commitment to seeing the contributions of Eastern philosophy recognized and taken up in Western seminar rooms, to the profit of reflection on the issues themselves.

Some suffering or 'evil' is not evil in an absolute sense, as signifying moral viciousness. It causes real distress, but is bound up in the nature of things, a universe [End Page 578] in which it is not possible for every desire of every individual to be granted, not least because our respective needs and desires conflict with others'. In that sense, it can be important to acknowledge that not all that we bemoan—or which in a polemical context can be taken as a 'disproof ' of the existence of God, for example—is morally evil and incompatible with the reality of religious beliefs. This is something that Western students can learn from Indian reflections on maya, for example, and the role played by our perception.

Nevertheless there is (I submit) 'evil' found in human action that is not reducible to purely subjective stances. In no way is genocide or any other atrocity merely a matter of personal taste and perspective. It is no contradiction that in the relevant Indian systems, belief in the subjectivity of perceptions of evil as embodied in the concept of maya is held simultaneously with sufficient belief in the objectivity of merit and demerit that makes karma operationally possible.

The way is open, then, to the believer in an omnibenevolent deity or ultimate reality to see all things, good and evil, as an 'offering,' or an opportunity. What I mean is this: it challenges us for our response. And how we respond, what we do, both reveals who we are and makes us who we are, who we become.

However, if the believer, or the theodicizing philosopher, wants to maintain that 'good comes from evil,' this concept must be understood correctly if it is not to fall apart into morally uncomfortable corollaries. For my own taste, any assertion that good can come from evil must never be decoupled from...