THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
Philosophy 45-351 Olney 102a
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.
The Bible (any translation)
The Bible (any translation)
Elie Wiesel, Night
Voltaire, Candide (
Optional: Perry, Dialogue on Good, Evil, and the Existence of God
Assignments: Two in-class exams 40%
Two essays (4 pg. each)
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.
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:
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
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
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?
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
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
Please note two important
(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.