Why Is There Evil in the World?

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In my AP European History course at school, our teacher recently had us do a simulation of a debate between various french philosophes. During the Enlightenment period in the early 18th century in Europe, women would host Salons in Paris; these were spaces for women and men to interact and engage in intellectual debates and discourse with one another. Each member of our class took on the role of one famous philosophe, researching and learning about their philosophical views and arguing to the class from their perspective. We discussed a topic that was controversial and largely debated during the Enlightenment after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and a topic that still has relevance to our lives today, especially after experiencing 2020: why is there evil in the world?

The various philosophes had contrasting views on this question. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German logician and natural philosopher, believed that evil doesn’t really exist, and that we are living in the best possible world that could be created. He argued that if God is truly omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent, then this must be true, because otherwise He would have created a better world. We therefore must not be able to see the whole picture, because we don’t have access to the divine plan.

Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume, on the other hand, insists on the reality of evil and acknowledges the doubt that his argument casts on the idea that there is an infinitely good God who governs human life. Hume does not deny God’s existence, but instead argues that God is morally neutral and indifferent to evil, because we do not have sufficient information to infer the existence of a good God.

The way the French philosophes answered this question, and the way you or I might answer this question, is dependent upon three things:

(1) Whether or not you believe in a God, and the degree to which you believe He intervenes in our lives.

Your belief in a greater being or force affecting our lives will greatly impact your belief on why evil exists in our world. French writer Voltaire, for instance, coined the watchmaker analogy: just like a watchmaker makes a watch and then lets it run on its own, God has created our world and does not intervene. Some might disagree and say that God intervenes regularly, affecting the force of evil on a daily basis, while others might argue that a God did not create our world at all and thus has no effect on evil.

(2) How much evidence you feel is necessary to make a claim.

For example, Hume refused to believe that God is wholly good due to the existence of evils, but also felt there was not enough evidence to prove that He is wholly bad. Hume came to the conclusion that God is morally neutral due to insufficient evidence on either side of the moral spectrum. Contrastingly, Leibniz felt it appropriate to make the unsupported claim that God is wholly good, because technically we will never know his moral standpoint.

(3) Whether or not you believe in people and life as inherently good.

This is where the line gets drawn between people who will accept evil as something that just happens, and people who will search for answers as a way to reconcile the existence of evil with innate goodness in people and the universe itself.

My personal belief follows along the lines of Leibnizian optimism. I believe that every person will get at least one objectively “good” life. Maybe it is not the life you are living right now, or maybe it is — this depends on who you are, what has happened to you, what will happen to you, etc. Souls continue to be born and reborn throughout time into different bodies, and from the birth of a new soul to its death, the soul will get to experience at least one “good life”. So, when bad things happen to people who seemingly have done nothing to deserve it, that person might just not be experiencing their “good life” yet. And this is not to say that when you break a bone or don’t get into the college you wanted to you aren’t experiencing your “good life,” nor is this to say that people don’t experience anything hard or scary in their “good lives.” I mean instead that people who are significantly disadvantaged in life from the moment they are born might be still waiting for the time when they will be reborn into a better, more equal life, or people whose lives were cut much too short will still have the chance for a full life when they are reborn.

Now, this theory is clearly entirely speculation and extremely vague. Many questions can be raised from my theory, such as “what constitutes a ‘good life’?” or “who defines whether or not my experiences are objectively good or bad?”.

However, having this theory as I go through life has helped me make sense of the world and the evils I encounter. Today’s society is afflicted by social and economic disparities among socially salient groups, systemic racism and inequities, an increasingly warming climate, and a global pandemic; needless to say there is a lot of evil, and not a whole lot of logic to the way it affects different people. My belief system stems less so from me being truly sold on the fact that there is God and rebirth and an afterlife, and more so because I need something to believe in that will keep me going through this world of inequality.

Ultimately, any answer to the question “why is there evil in the world?” will lack evidence and rationale, and may defy humans’ limited understanding of life. But we continue to ask these big philosophical questions and seek answers to what we cannot know in search of something that will ground us and give us hope that our lives have a purpose beyond what we can see.

References:

David Hume, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume/#GodMorAtt

Hume on Religion, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume-religion/

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gottfried_Wilhelm_Leibniz

Special thanks to the Dana Hall AP European History course for teaching me about the Enlightenment age and the French philosophes, and inspiring me with this topic!