Is Moral Evil Natural Evil? An Attempt to Break Down a Well Worn Distinction

A quick post, following on from a couple of the recent discussions about the Problem of Evil. As I remember it, there is a fairly clear distinction in the literature on said problem between natural evil and moral evil. Natural evil is that which occurs purely in nature, such as Rowe's fawn trapped and suffering in a burning forest. Moral evil is the evil which is made possible by the fact of human freedom. I think I'm right in saying that most religious people consider moral evil to be less of a problem (at least, in terms of logic), as freedom is considered an essential part of God's salvific plan/necessary for love.

Over the last year or so, I've come to think that this distinction between moral and natural evil doesn't hold. My reasoning is fairly simple, and so should be fairly simple to prove wrong if it happens to be false! (I'm also very sorry if this is a fairly common argument: one effect of being out of the academy is I no longer have any real idea what most people are actually saying on these issues!)

First: it does not seem to me that evil follows from freedom, but from the possibility of error. In many (though not all) cases of evil conduct, the series of steps which led to that conduct tend to include a serious error of reasoning, logical or emotional.

Second: I don't think the possibility of freedom necessarily entails the possibility of error. Someone faced with three choices, one of which is erroneous and two of which aren't, would still be considered free even if they had enough awareness (logical or emotional) to ensure that they would immediately exclude the erroneous option at the outset. Similarly, we tend to say both that God is free and that God is incapable of error, which whilst not necessarily strictly relevant to the nature of human freedom does at least show that we cannot absolutely weld our concepts of error and freedom together as a matter of logical necessity. (I should also add that it does not seem to be the case that the possibility of error entails freedom: we can imagine a calculator rigidly programmed so as to always make mistakes without having to imagine it to be free.)

Third: it seems to me that the Biblical narrative tells us a story of a people created with a capacity for error; that the capacity for error (perhaps more precisely, the capacity for falling into temptation) is a natural feature of human existence. After all, if Adam and Eve are not created with this capacity for error, one has to ask how it is that the possibility of temptation arose in the first place.

Now, if my first and second assumptions are true, the following seems to me to follow: if error is not entailed by freedom, then error is not a necessary part of God's salvific plan in the same way freedom is. If evil can be caused by error rather than freedom, meanwhile, then this evil need not be logically related to the plan of salvation and can't be justified in terms of the necessity for human freedom. If the capacity for error is a natural human capacity, meanwhile, an essential part of our created nature, then the evil which follows from error seems to be a natural phenomenon in the same way as a tiger causing suffering to a family by killing a child or a fawn trapped in a burning forest.

My intention in writing this piece is not to furnish an argument against the existence of God. I remain resolute in my opinion that the real problem of evil is not a problem relating to God's existence but to our practise, and that a proper response to it is not to try and argue round it or explain the presence of evil, but to try and combat the presence of that evil in our world through worship of God, including the taking on of a life of Christian service (or, in more secular terms, trying to live in such a way that evil and its effects are somewhat neutralised). All the same, it seems to me that the distinction between natural be moral evil is far more ad hoc than it is sometimes presented as being, and should be challenged.



4 thoughts on “Is Moral Evil Natural Evil? An Attempt to Break Down a Well Worn Distinction

  1. Thanks for the post. A few points:

    //we tend to say both that God is free and that God is incapable of error//

    A lot here depends on which view of freedom is the correct one. Suppose we endorse (as I do) the following principle (or something like it):

    (P) A person is free with respect to action A only if he could’ve done otherwise, i.e. only if he could’ve refrained from A-ing.

    If P is true, then God isn’t free with respect to all of his actions. Proof: Suppose God promises to A at t. By P, God is free with respect to A only if he could’ve refrained from A-ing. Then, if God is free on this occasion, then there’s a world in which God promises to A and refrains from A-ing. But God is supposed to be *essentially* morally perfect. Conclusion: God isn’t free with respect to actions he is morally obliged to perform. I don’t see a reason to think this is implausible. Do we want to say God is free to do evil?

    The implication is that humans can be *significantly* free (free with respect to morally significant actions) only if they can go wrong, which implies, I think, that the *possibility* of error is welded to *significant* freedom as a matter of logical necessity.


  2. (Augustine’s ‘on the freedom of the will’ is obviously relevant here, and I’d like to do a close analysis of how his account of the will’s moral culpability actually feeds into this argument (probably along the lines that it is undermined by its platonic anthropology). But that’s for another time.)


  3. Thanks C’Zar: I’d say that your account of freedom, that one can only be counted as free if one could have done otherwise, does not necessarily entail that the one can only be counted free if one could have done something wrong. In almost any given scenario I can think of, there are multiple ethically responsible options, such that it is possible for someone to be free in the sense that they could have acted other than they did without our thereby saying that the possibility of their acting wrongly is a condition of that freedom.


  4. (There’s also, of course, a line of reasoning, typically associated with nominalism/certain forms of Protestantism, wherein God’s moral perfection is a given irrespective of the choices that He makes. And if you take that horn of the Eurythro dilemma, there are no actions that God is morally obliged to perform: there is no moral order beyond God to which He is obliged. Of course, you don’t have to take that line; but if you do, I think it does place God’s freedom beyond the category of moral error.)


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