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Hypatia 18.1 (2003) 1-9

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Special Issue on "Feminist Philosophy and the Problem of Evil"

Robin May Schott

There is for human beings no greater hell
to fear than the one on earth.

—Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy

Toward the close of Alice Walker's novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy (1993), Adam realizes—after witnessing the lifelong trauma of his wife Tashi/Evelyn, who had undergone "female circumcision" as a young woman in her (fictive) African tribe of Olinka, and after speaking with a young man dying of AIDS—that "There is for human beings no greater hell to fear than the one on earth" (250). Adam gives final testimony to the ruined body and dreams of this young man, who had worked for a pharmaceutical company rumored to have been responsible for spreading AIDS in Africa by developing a vaccine against polio that may have carried the immune deficiency virus from green monkeys to humans.

The problem of evil is older than the story of Job, a just and faithful man who experienced evil events through the loss of family, health, and property. His story poses the question: why should any individual or community, especially those who seek to live justly, suffer inexplicably? Job ultimately accepts the voice of God from the whirlwind, recognizes that humans are not competent to judge whether God is just, and is redeemed. Many of Job's successors have followed his example by demanding to know the explanation of unjust suffering, but have refused to accept Job's solution. For modern authors, it is not God but human beings who become judges of the significance of evil in human affairs (see Cicovacki 2001, 83-94).

The question of unjust suffering has haunted modern thought. As Susan Neiman argues in her book, Evil in Modern Thought; An Alternative History of [End Page 1] Philosophy (2002), 1 the problem of evil most broadly understood is the problem of how to make sense of the world when that world is ineradicably a place of suffering (2). The specifically modern conception of evil refers to moral evils, to evils that human beings are responsible for, as opposed to the catastrophes of natural disasters or the suffering implicit in the finitude of the world, both of which have been classified earlier as forms of evil. Joan Copjec (1996) observes that Immanuel Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1960) enacted a conceptual revolution by which evil "ceases to be a religious or metaphysical problem and becomes, for the first time, a political, moral and pedagogical problem" (xi). By situating evil as an effect of freedom rather than as an effect of human finitude, Kant opened the way to what María Pía Lara (2001) calls a postmetaphysical understanding of evil (1). 2

Though Neiman (2002) criticizes much of twentieth-century philosophy for ignoring the problem of evil (for example, see 288), a cursory glance at the themes of humanities conferences and new publications over the last five years or so indicates that the issue has become quite fashionable. "Evil" has definitely caught the attention of scholars again. Although philosophical discussions of the problem of evil seem to go in and out of fashion, the reality of evil, in the broad sense of meaningless suffering, has never retreated from human existence. Nor has the problem of "evils" in the narrower sense, defined by Claudia Card (2002) as "foreseeable intolerable harms produced by culpable wrongdoings" (3). 3 It is to the plurality of evil acts to which most discussions of evil in this Special Issue of Hypatia refer. A quick recap of the astonishing increase in the number of civilian deaths in wartime conflict is just one reminder of the modern world's capacity for evil. In the first ninety years of the twentieth century, there were over four times as many war deaths as in the preceding four hundred years (see Vickers 1993). In 1990, battlefields included Afghanistan, Angola, Columbia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Kuwait, Lebanon, Liberia, Mozambique, Peru, Somalia, South Africa, Sri...


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