THE PROBLEM OF EVIL                                                    Kaufman

Philosophy 45-351                                                                              Olney 102a

Spring 2010                                                                                             Phone: 934-3913       



Introduction: This course examines the Problem of Evil: what is evil, and why does it exist? The theological form of the problem can be stated thus: If God is omnipotent and benevolent, then why is there evil in the world?  However, we will see that this problem is not limited to religious believers, but is part of a much broader question about the issue of purpose and meaning in the world.  We will examine from a philosophical perspective some of the most important and interesting historical and contemporary solutions offered to this problem, and evaluate them from the standpoint of overall coherence, empirical plausibility, and moral justifiability.  Solutions considered include Original Sin, Karma and rebirth, Free Will, Cosmic Dualism, and others.  Texts to be considered include religious, philosophical, and literary approaches to the existence of evil.  

Texts:                         The Bible (any translation)

                                    Elie Wiesel, Night

                                    Voltaire, Candide (Dover)

                                    Optional: Perry, Dialogue on Good, Evil, and the Existence of God               

Assignments:                                      Two in-class exams                              40%

                                                            Two essays (4 pg. each)                        60%


All assignments must be satisfactorily completed in order to pass the course.  Regular attendance is expected; if there are substantial numbers of absences (excused or unexcused), you may be required to complete extra work in order to pass the class, at the discretion of the instructor.

 Schedule of Topics:

1. Introduction

            In this section, we attempt a formal account of the Problem of Evil.  We consider whether it is merely a problem for religion, or indeed merely for monotheistic religions.  The argument will be that it is far broader than a religious question, but is a legitimate philosophical and scientific question.

            We also look at current theories of the nature and causes of evil and criminality, including a discussion of criminals and also of the rise of Nazism.

2. Defining Evil

            We need to attempt a definition of ‘evil’ in order to state the problem clearly.  This will require a consideration and refutation of ethical subjectivism.  Then we will draw a distinction between moral evil and natural evil, and ask whether there is but one problem of evil or several different ones.

3. The Fall of Man: Mythological Accounts

            Here we will consider the famous Biblical account of the origin of evil in the Garden of Eden.  We will attempt to place this account within the broader context of ancient Near Eastern mythologies, including the story of Gilgamesh.  How do ancient mythologies help us understand the way ancient peoples thought about the problem of pain and suffering, and do they have anything to teach us today?

4. Karma and Rebirth

            The famous Hindu account of evil holds that everyone gets just what one deserves; all suffering can be explained by a sin committed in a previous existence.  How plausible is this explanation?

5. Retributive Solutions Generally

            The Karma solution can be seen as a subset of what can be called ‘Retributive’ explanations: each of these attempts to explain suffering as a form of punishment for sin.  The doctrine of Original Sin is a famous Christian retributive explanation.             

6. Free Will

            In the modern world, the overwhelmingly most popular account of evil is the explanation in terms of freedom of the will.  God gave us freedom, and freedom implies the ability to choose between good and evil.  But can this account make sense of natural evil as well as moral evil?  And does Plato’s objection to free will undermine it?    

7. Teleological Solutions: Afterlife, Apocalypticism, ‘Soul-Building’

            Teleological accounts attempt to explain all evil as contributing to a greater future good.   

8. Cosmic Dualism: Gnosticism and Manichaeanism

            The dualist hypothesis asserts that the world is a cosmic battleground between the forces of good and evil, neither of which is able to defeat the other.  Will good eventually defeat evil?          

9. Cosmic Holism and Complementarity of Opposites

            The Holist believes that good and evil balance each other in a higher harmony.

10. Evil as Illusion: Hinduism, Christian Science

            Is all apparent evil really an illusion?    

11. The Plenitude Solution: is evil a necessary element in creation?


The Use of Outside Sources in Essays:

All written work handed in for credit must be substantially your own.  Any use of the words or ideas of someone else (from books, newspapers, the Internet, friends, etc.) must be fully credited with proper citation form.  The citation must be sufficient to allow anyone to look up the source for himself (this is especially important for web sites). 

The following definition of plagiarism is from the U Mass Undergraduate Catalog:

Plagiarism is defined as (1) direct quotation or word-for-word copying of all or part of the work of another without identification or acknowledgment of the quoted work, (2) extensive use of acknowledged quotations from the work of others which is joined together by a few words or lines of one’s own text, and (3) an abbreviated restatement of someone else’s analysis or conclusion, however skillfully paraphrased, without acknowledgment that another person’s text has been the basis for the recapitulation.  

Please note two important points:

(1) You must give credit for the use of either the words or ideas of someone else. 

(2) Your work must be substantially original; even if you give proper citations, that is not sufficient if most of the essay consists of someone else’s words or ideas.


At the discretion of the instructor, the student may be asked to demonstrate orally to the satisfaction of the instructor that the work handed in is substantially original.  Failure to do so may be grounds for denial of credit for the assignment.