There is a kind of philosophical response to evil that is itself ghoulish. I think of this every time I teach Keith Yandell’s rather classic essay on “The Greater Good Defense.” There is a posture in such approaches that treats evil like one more thing about which to be clever. The examples are almost flippant. Evil is discussed as if slavery and the Holocaust never happened. Evil and suffering are just another topic for the analytic philosopher’s toolbox, a path to tenure. It’s the sort of philosophical approach to evil that brings out the Ivan Karamazov in me.
The French phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur, a lonely Protestant in that 20th century milieu of Marxists and Catholics, articulates what I still think is a landmark critique of “theodicy,” the attempt to “justify” God in the face of evil. In “Evil, A Challenge to Philosophy and Theology,” he articulates the problem with the so-called problem of evil. What evil calls into question, Ricoeur emphasizes, “is a way of thinking submitted to the requirements of logical coherence.” The very project of theodicy is to explain evil; but to explain evil is to give it a place, to make it “make sense” somehow. And that, Ricoeur says, is to make it something else, something other than “what ought not to be.” Every “necessary evil” is an instrumental good. And in the process of looking for an explanation, evil melts into the thin air of logical coherence.
Thus Ricoeur challenges the very frame of “the problem of evil”: “what is assumed by this way of posing the problem is never called into question, namely, the propositional form itself in which the terms of the problem are stated, along with the rule of coherence that any solution to the problem must satisfy.”
Habits of thinking die hard. Our acquired habit of making evil a “problem,” and the philosophical impetus to “solve” the problem, means that stepping outside of the propositional frame will feel like philosophical irresponsibility, a kind of fideism in negative. But I think Ricouer’s essay models a rigorous philosophical encounter with evil that simply refuses to make it a “problem” or puzzle” and gives up the hubris of a “solution.” So Ricoeur does not challenge the propositional framing in order to give license to irrationality; rather, he offers an alternative phenomenological approach that transposes how we approach evil philosophically.
A good chunk of the essay is a history of how philosophers have approached evil as a problem. I won’t rehearse it here, but it’s worth your time, even if there are aspects of Ricoeur’s tale that warrant critique.
I want to fast forward to a final step in this history that sets up Ricoeur’s own constructive response. In Kant, Ricouer sees a pivot from a metaphysical approach to evil to an ethical one. “This is not to say that the problem of evil disappears from the philosophical scene, however. Quite the contrary, in fact. But it now refers uniquely to the practical sphere, as that which ought not to be and which action must struggle against.” By “practical” here, of course, he doesn’t mean some banal notion of merely being “applicable” or “helpful” but rather a pivot to addressing evil in the realm of action, of praxis. Evil is considered not on the register of ontology (and questions of substance, etc.) but rather on the register of suffering. We are moving to thinking about evil primarily through the lens of how victims suffer and what we can do in the face of it. That this amounts to its own Copernican revolution vis-a-vis evil. That some philosophers will think this sounds fuzzy and wishy-washy is a damning commentary on philosophy, not Ricoeur.
Ricoeur sees himself as a critical heir of Kant in this regard. “A turn from theory to practice,” he concludes, “was already initiated by Kant, as I have said. But this turn is not a turning away from thought. Instead it is the continuation on another plane of thought’s interminable work.” Engaged as a “practical” challenge rather than a logical “problem,” “evil is above all what ought not to be, but what must be fought against.” What evil calls for is not a solution but a response. “The response, not the solution, of action is to act against evil.”
Alluding to Freud, Ricoeur suggests that some of “thought’s work” in this regard will be a “work of mourning.” Thus he recommends “wisdom, with its philosophical and theological prolongations, as a spiritual help in this work of mourning, aimed at a qualitative change in the lament and the complaint.” What this requires of us, he counsels, is to face the intellectual aporia of evil’s irruption and “make it productive.” And the first step in “making the intellectual aporia productive is to integrate the ignorance it gives rise to, the docta ignorantia.” Confessing we don’t know why is the beginning of wisdom.
The second stage of this philosophical catharis “is to allow it to develop into a complaint against God.” (He points to Elie Wiesel as an example.) A “theology of protest” is the voice of “the impatience of hope.”
Finally, Ricoeur’s most jarring proposal:
A third stage in the catharsis of lament is to discover that the reasons for believing in God have nothing in common with the need to explain the origin of suffering. Suffering is only a scandal for the person who understands God to be the source of everything that is good in creation, including our indignation against evil, our courage to bear it, and our feeling of sympathy toward victims. In other words, we believe in God in spite of evil.”
It’s worth re-reading that paragraph. Ricoeur’s claim is audacious. On the one hand, he is refusing the god of onto-theo-logy, the god of theodicies, the entity invoked to solve a “problem.” God is not an explanation. But then even more audaciously: it is belief in God–a God who is the source of good–that gives us a standpoint to name evil evil. A thoroughgoing naturalism has no standpoint from which to say, “this ought not to be.” The scandal of suffering is generated by belief in God. Indeed, every naming of evil might live on borrowed capital.
There are some encounters before which philosophy must only yield. These are the sorts of phenomena that interest Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion, phenomena that Marion describes as “saturated”: the face, the erotic phenomenon, agape, the sublime, the icon, revelation, God. Kierkegaard speaks of the “absolute paradox” encountered in the Incarnation that represents the “frontier” of philosophy’s reach and capacity. What if evil is a dark paradox, the Incarnation in negative? Then half of wisdom, in the best Socratic tradition, is to know what it doesn’t know. As my friend Richard Middleton says, “the failure of understanding in the realm of theodicy is not a real failure. Despite its interim success and widespread popularity, it is the greater good defense that ultimately fails for maintaining a semblance of rationality when the admission of ignorance would be more honest.”
For Further Reading
Some of Ricoeur’s most provocative work on evil is found in the last two sections of his book, The Conflict of Interpretations.
In the same spirit, but quite different in approach (viz., a close reading of the book of Job), consider David Burrell’s Deconstructing Theodicy.
I cited Richard Middleton at the end. Richard is an old friend of mine, someone from whom I have learned much, going all the way back to my first graduate studies in Toronto. His essay has shaped much of my thinking on these matters: “Why the ‘Greater Good’ Isn’t a Defense.”