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					    Ars Disputandi
  Volume 10 (2010)
   issn: 1566–5399



    Daniel Ambord        Evil, Meaning and Meaning-Makers
claremont graduate
university school of
       religion, usa




                         Abstract
                         In her work Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, Marilyn McCord Adams
                         offers an account of the problem of evil that deals with the interaction between
                         certain types of evil and the human capacity for meaning production. This paper
                         attempts to consider certain implications of her presuppositions and, in so doing, to
                         uncover several challenges to her broader project entailed by said implications.
                         More specifically, this paper considers, within the context of Adams’ broader project,
                         the status of perpetrators of horrendous evils with respect to their ability to conceive
                         of said evils, evils that destroy meaning-making capacities in their victims and evils
                         that twist and subvert the meaning-making processes of their victims or observers.

                In her work Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, Marilyn McCord Adams
          offers us a consideration of the problem of evil that deals with the implications
          of certain types of evil for the capacity of entities to create positive meaning for
          their existences. While her treatment of this subject is insightful and avoids many
          of the problems associated with other approaches to the problem of evil, it is
          nonetheless incomplete in important respects. Interestingly, this incompleteness
          is centered on the very thing that makes Adams’ approach so compelling: the
          status of the person as meaning-maker. Adams ignores crucial issues related to
          meaning-making as a capacity and, as a result, is left with an account that not
          only fails to incorporate telling and philosophically valuable criticisms of the
          theodicies to which she is opposed, but also fails to consider a variety of evil that
          may well be worse than even the horrendous evils she seeks to provide an account
          of. These flaws, however, do not detract from the broader importance of Adams’
          project (that is to say, from the inclusion of a consideration of meaning-making
          in the discussion of evil) but rather illustrate that said project is still in its infancy
          and requires modification and elaboration. The goal of this work, therefore, is
          precisely to enumerate certain shortcomings of Adams’ specific discussion of evil
          and meaning-making in order to allow for the improvement and continuation of
          her broader project.
                Adams offers a very specific account of the effects of horrendous evils on
          meaning-makers. Adams defines horrendous evils as “Evils the participation in
          which (that is, the doing or suffering of which) constitutes prima facie reason to
          doubt whether the participant’s life could (given their inclusion in it) be a great
          good to him/her on the whole.”1 Already it would seem that we are confronted
                 1. Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, Cornell University
          Press, Ithaca, NY, 1999, p. 26; henceforth: Adams.

                  Daniel Ambord, May 14, 2010. If you would like to cite this article, please do so as follows:
          Daniel Ambord, ‘Evil, Meaning and Meaning-Makers,’ Ars Disputandi [http://www.ArsDisputandi.org] 10 (2010), 38–49.
                                        Daniel Ambord: Evil, Meaning and Meaning-Makers


with an important ambiguity: For whom must such evils provide said grounds
for doubt? We must first consider this question carefully, as we shall find that it
rests at the very heart of the incomplete understanding of meaning-making and
evil that is at play in Adams’ work.
      Adams first appeals to a normative standard, claiming that “most people
would agree that [torture, child abuse, starvation, nuclear war etc.] constitute a
reason to doubt whether the participant’s life is worth living, because it is difficult
to imagine how such evils could be overcome.”2 This statement can be taken in
three ways. Firstly, we could assume that it is an appeal to how something is
likely to be interpreted by an outside observer. For instance, we could take this
to mean that someone studying or observing a genocide, but not victimized by
it directly, would nonetheless have reason to doubt whether those victimized by
said genocide could be said, on the whole, to have lives that are worth living.
Secondly, we could interpret this passage to mean that most people, if subjected
to horrendous evils, would have reason to doubt that their own lives would
be worth living. Thirdly, we could take this passage to mean that such evils as
described above, whether witnessed or experienced directly, would give one cause
to suspect that the participants are not leading lives that are a good to them on
the whole.
      The issue is made somewhat more confusing by Adams’ discussion of the
extent of our ability to cause horrendous evils relative to our capacity to conceive
of such evils. Adams observes:
     First, human history is riddled with horrendous evil. Second, it is relatively
     easy for human beings to cause horrendous evils (or at least be salient mem-
     bers of causal chains leading to them). . . Third, an individual human being’s
     capacity to produce suffering-horrendous and otherwise-(or be a salient mem-
     ber in causal chain leading to it) exceeds his/her ability to experience it. . .
     Fourth, since where suffering is concerned, capacity to conceive follows ca-
     pacity to experience, in such a way that we cannot adequately conceive what
     we cannot adequately experience, it follows that our power to cause horrors
     outweighs our powers of conception.3

The first thing we can conclude from the above observations is that horrendous
evils cannot be readily evaluated as such by a third party, because that third
party would be incapable of conceiving of said evils. Adams thus, is suggesting
that horrendous evils are of a deeply personal nature. They cannot be declared
horrendous by any save those who participate in them and, consequently, suffer
the effects by virtue of which they can be declared to be horrendous.
      Unfortunately, this evaluation seems to create a problem for another area of
Adams’ inquiry: her broad definition of participants in horrendous evils. It is im-
portant that we note that Adams defined participation in horrendous evils as “the
doing or suffering” of such evils.4 Adams writes “Inasmuch as taboos constitute
     2. Adams, p. 26.
     3. Adams, p. 36.
     4. Adams, p. 26, emphasis mine.

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                                      Daniel Ambord: Evil, Meaning and Meaning-Makers


hedges erected to maintain minimum standards necessary for human community,
taboo violations degrade their perpetrators, by exhibiting their unfitness for hu-
man society.”5 In other words, there is a sense in which perpetration of horrendous
evils, no less than suffering such evils, is grounds for the prima facie assessment
that one’s life is not worth living. Considering the personal nature of horrendous
evils, however, it would seem that such an evaluation cannot come from a third
party. Therefore, we must consider whether perpetrators of horrendous evils have
grounds upon which to declare themselves as having lives not worth living.
      Given that perpetrators of horrendous evils are not capable of conceiving of
the full extent of their crimes, it is worth asking whether or not they nonetheless
have grounds upon which they could evaluate their own lives as not being good
on the whole. This would seem to be a difficult question. Adams asserts that every
person’s suffering is unique and, furthermore, that humans are capable of creating
incidences of suffering far beyond what they could ever experience personally.
It seems that if the only ground for evaluation available to the perpetrator of
horrendous evils is the ability to conceive of her own crimes, than said perpetrators
could not be said to be degraded by the evils that they perform in the way that
Adams suggests that they must be. Worse still, Adams does not offer us any
standards other than the capacity to experience or conceive of a horrendous evil
by which one could make an evaluation as to whether one’s life is worth living.
      Before we conclude, however, that Adams’ account has placed perpetrators
of horrendous evils wholly beyond the reach of evaluation (with respect to the
prima facie value of their lives), we must consider one final group of potential
evaluators: Their unfortunate victims. Surely, if anyone is capable of being able
to comprehend the extent of the horrors being performed by someone it is the
person who is the victim of those horrors. This concept surely carries a great deal of
normative weight, as even within the Justice System victims are accorded certain
rights in keeping with the implicit assumption that they have a unique insight
into the crime that has been committed and a unique stake in the attribution of
responsibility to a perpetrator.
      This potential solution is more problematic than it might at first appear.
Firstly and most obviously, since all evils are in some sense unique, a given
person suffering from a horrendous evil that is the result of human agency would
seem only to be able to consider her own case when evaluating whether her
tormentor is leading a life worth living. Taken alone this would not seem to be a
serious problem, as it seems possible that a number of judgments so rendered (or
even, perhaps, a single one) would constitute sufficient grounds for evaluating
the prima facie positive value of the life of a perpetrator of horrendous evils. A
more serious problem would seem to be that the individual nature of horrendous
evils does not seem to allow a conception of how a given evil would affect another
person, even if the one doing the evaluating was intimately familiar with the evil
in question. Likewise, it seems possible that the perpetration and the suffering of
horrendous evils (if they are both, in fact, degrading to a horrendous degree) are
     5. Adams, p. 27.


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                                       Daniel Ambord: Evil, Meaning and Meaning-Makers


degrading in different ways. Given these latter two issues, it would seem that even
the victims of a horrendous evil would not have grounds, by Adams’ account, to
evaluate the life of the perpetrator of said evils as being, prima facie, not worth
living.
      This inability to account for the effects of horrendous evils on their perpe-
trators constitutes a weakness with respect to Adams’ account of the interaction
between horrendous evils and meaning-makers. Horrendous evils, by definition,
hinge upon the capacity of some party or other to evaluate them in relation to the
lives they affect. Given that Adams wishes to include perpetrators of horrendous
evils as participants, the apparent impossibility of conducting the above sort of
evaluation seems a problematic inconsistency within her thinking. More worrying
than the inconsistency itself, however, is the fact that it seems to arise in spite of
intuitively attractive presuppositions. Surely, we would like to say, with Adams,
that perpetrators of horrors are degraded by those horrors and, likewise, that our
capacity to conceive of horrors follows our capacity to experience them. Perhaps,
we may find fault with Adams’ inclusion of the perpetrators of horrendous evils
in the category of those affected by horrendous evils qua horrendous evils. It
seems possible and, indeed, likely, that given the personal and evaluative nature
of horrendous evils, quite another type of evil is at play in those who perpetrate
said evils than in those who suffer them.
      Before we move on to the next stage of our consideration of Adams’ project,
we must first pause to reflect upon an important observation that will underwrite
much of the rest of our inquiry. To wit, Adams’ discussion of the limits of our
capacity to conceive of evils forces us to regard evils as intensely personal, in
the sense that they can only be fully evaluated by their participants or, rather,
by their victims. No outside observer can truly apprehend the experience of a
victim of a horrendous evil, even if that person is the victim of a horrendous evil
of a similar type. As Adams puts it, “Nature and experience endow people with
different strengths; one bears easily what crushes another.”6 While Adams claims
that the sufferer’s perspective is merely an important and, indeed, essential part
of some broader evaluation of horrendous evils, it seems that any such evaluation
would be subject to the same problems manifest in the issue of the perpetrator of
horrendous evil: anyone not directly experiencing a given evil is so limited in his
ability to conceive of that evil as to be incapable of the sort of evaluation necessary
to declare a given evil horrendous.7 In recognition of this limitation, we seem to
have little choice but to proceed under the assumption that only the victim of a
horrendous evil is capable of declaring that evil horrendous.
      A second, related, weakness of Adams’ argument is her failure to consider
evil agency that directly entails a certain type of meaning-creation on the part of
both the perpetrator and the victim. As Borgres’ Otto Dietrich zur Linde awaits
his execution for his management of a Nazi concentration camp, he considers
at length the spiritual victory of National Socialism, as embodied in the lesson
taught to the nations of the world by the horrors of the Second World War:
     6. Adams, p. 27.
     7. Adams, p. 27.

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                                           Daniel Ambord: Evil, Meaning and Meaning-Makers


      Now an implacable age looms before the world. We forged this age, we are
      now its victim. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the
      anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now
      rules. If victory and injustice and happiness do not belong to Germany, let
      them belong to other nations. Let heaven exist though our place be in hell.8

This passage is an excellent evocation of a truly disturbing variety of evil: namely,
the sort of evil that uses meaning-making as a tool for its own ends. Dietrich
zur Linde is not only appropriating the defeat of Germany into a system of
what he would consider positive meaning, but he is also asserting that National
Socialist ideology is in fact victorious by way of a sort of coerced appropriation
of the meaning-making faculties of others. In its worst forms, as in the case
Dietrich zur Linde describes, this coerced appropriation can occur to the extent
of making the victims of a given evil collaborators with said evil, both by bearing
out the motivation for which that evil was conducted to begin with and through
perpetuating that evil in their own conduct.
      It is worthwhile to take a moment to consider the sort of evil agency at issue
here. Consider the above means of collaboration. Surely, one is responsible only in
a very limited way for bearing out the variety of meaning-making that motivated a
given evil act, especially if one does so unknowingly.9 One’s level of responsibility
is perhaps greater when one perpetuates the type of evil of which one was oneself
a victim. Nazism is an interesting example insofar as it necessarily entails this sort
of meaning-making appropriation as both the motivation for and the product of
its activities.10 Of the Nazi worldview, Emil Fackenheim of Hebrew University
astutely observes “Like tradition, religion and metaphysics, a Weltanschauung (in
its original German meaning) must be coherent and comprehensive, but unlike
these it cannot be put forward as being, but can only be made true.”11 Thus, the
Nazi worldview was entirely contingent upon a certain revaluation of values that
is inseparable from the forced appropriation of meaning employed by National
Socialism as a system. Thus, Borges has captured, in his Deutsches Requiem, the
terrible truth of Nazism: that it was, at its heart, a creed self-consciously bent on
twisting and abusing the meaning-making capacities of the world it afflicted and,
consequently, haunts us even now in the very characterizations of it that we use
to attempt to prevent the resurgence of similar creeds throughout the world.
      One might suppose, and quite correctly, that the possibility of this meaning
appropriating evil provides support for Adams’ approach, insofar as it highlights
the dangers inherent in a merely human attempt to subsume horrors into a positive
view of one’s own life. After all, a very telling practical flaw in theodicies is their
       8. “Deutsches Requiem” by Jorge Luis Borges, as found in Collected Fictions, translated by
Andrew Hurley, Penguin Publishing, New York, NY, 1998, p. 234.
       9. Adams, p. 39.
       10. While an obvious example of this variety of evil, Nazism is by no means the only one.
Indeed, there have been some excellent treatments of this topic in the literature. Cf. I. Donsky,
“Truth and Modern Dictatorships”, Philosophy, Vol. 9, No. 35., July 1934.
       11. Emil L. Fackenheim, “Nazi ‘Ethic,’ Nazi Weltanschauung, and the Holocaust”, The
Jewish Quarterly Review, LXXXIII, No.1/2 (July-October 1992) p. 165.


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vulnerability to the efforts of agents who perpetrate evils precisely in order to
solicit a certain type of meaning-production on the part of their victims.12 Adams’
account, by contrast, avoids this vulnerability by placing her hope for the defeat
of evils in the hands of a God who surely could not fail to put said evils in a
context that is not in service to evil agency.13 Likewise, of course, there is a sense
in which horrendous evil is a variety of coerced meaning appropriation, insofar
as the perpetrators of a given evil may have the intention of rendering their
victims liable to viewing life as not worth living. While these considerations are
themselves philosophically interesting and could likely be add support to areas of
Adams’ argument, however, they nonetheless open the door to a serious problem
with another area of Adams’ account.
       If we acknowledge the possibility of evil agents who wish to shape the
meaning-making processes of their victims along intentional, predictable lines,
we are likewise forced to acknowledge the possibility of a type of victimization
that poses problems for Adams’ account. Consider, for instance, Dietrich zur
Linde’s assertion that National Socialism shaped the worldviews of its enemies
in a way that bears out its own doctrines. In doing so, it surely did not perpetrate
a horrendous evil in the way Adams defines it (except, perhaps, incidentally).
Nonetheless, however, such a shaping of the meaning-making capacity of the
peoples of the world is surely noteworthy insofar as it entails a twisting of the
nature of the positive meaning into which said peoples subsume the evils of
the Second World War. More specifically, by Dietrich zur Linde’s account, the
Western Allies appropriated the worldview that “violence, not servile Christian
acts of timidity, now rules” as a positive standard by which to evaluate their
conduct during the war.14 If the war was tragic, surely it was justified (that is,
subsumable into a positive view of history) insofar as it was instructive to the
Western powers as to the nature of world affairs.
       The scope of this paper is neither strictly ethical nor political, but suppose
for the sake of argument that we consent that this worldview is an evil one, point-
ing perhaps to the brutality that characterized the proverbial “game of nations”
during the Cold War. It would then seem that Nazi Germany had succeeded in
producing, by way of the perpetration of certain evils, a system of interpretation
into which virtually any evil can be subsumed without diminishing the “good-
ness” of history. If strength becomes the standard by which to value or disvalue
a country’s history, than the evils it commits or endures for the sake of strength
(wars, conscription, economic hardship resulting from arms manufacture, loss of
civil liberties, paranoia etc.) all becomes subsumable into a view of history that
nonetheless assigns history a positive value. The nations, or persons, operating
under such a skewed, damaged, system of valuation would not be capable of
       12. At worst, it would seem theodicies are subject to dangers similar to those that Philippa
Foot associates with Utilitarianism: They make us collaborate with evil in order to create whatever
good a given theodicy says necessarily arises from said evil. Cf. Philippa Foot, “Utilitarianism and
the Virtues”, Mind, New Series, Vol. 94, No. 374 (April 1985).
       13. Adams, p. 80.
       14. Borges, p. 234.


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                                        Daniel Ambord: Evil, Meaning and Meaning-Makers


experiencing horrendous evils (although they would be capable of and perhaps
likely to perpetrate them) but nonetheless would be the victim of an evil that
seems to abuse their meaning-making capacity in a no less serious respect.
      We would do well to consider the degree to which this sort of evil agency
is subsumable into Adams’ account of meaning-making. As I have already men-
tioned, Adams does not consider this issue explicitly. She does, however, offer a
useful inquiry into the shaping of meaning-making as a capacity. Of the develop-
ment of said capacity, Adams writes:
     We human beings start life ignorant, weak and helpless, psychologically so
     lacking in self-concept as to be incapable of choice. We learn to ‘construct’ a
     picture of the world, ourselves and other people only with difficulty over a
     long period of time and under the extensive influence of nonideal choosers.
     Human development is the interactive product of human nature and its en-
     vironment, and from early on we humans are confronted with problems we
     cannot adequately grasp or cope with and in response to which we mount
     (without fully conscious calculation) inefficient adaptational strategies. Yet,
     the human psyche is habit forming in such a way that these reactive patterns,
     based as they are on a child’s inaccurate view of the world and its strategic
     options, become entrenched in the individual’s personality. Typically, these
     are unconsciously acted out for years, causing much suffering to self and
     other before (if ever) they are recognized and undone through a difficult and
     painful process of therapy and/or spiritual formation.15
There seems to be no reason why we cannot take Adams’ discussion of damage
to one’s meaning-making capacity as able to include damage that stems from
intentional agency.
      Curiously, Adams does come close to acknowledging another and equally
troubling variety of damage to our meaning-making processes. Specifically, it
would seem possible that some evils are so horrific that being victimized by them
would cause a person to lose altogether the capacity to manufacture meaning.
Adams seems to hint at this possibility in various places in her work. She writes
of horrendous evils, “In most (if not all) cases their destructive power reached
beyond their concrete disvalue (such as the pain and material deprivation they
involve), into the deep structure of the person’s frameworks of meaning-making,
seemingly to defeat the individuals value as a person, to degrade him/her to sub-
human status.”16 By way of example, she considers the Holocaust/Shoah, saying
“The Nazi death camps aimed, not merely to kill, but to dehumanize their victims,
treating them worse than cattle to break down their personalities and reduce their
social instincts to raw animal aggression and self-preservation.”17 The question of
the relationship of horrors to meaning-making, however, proves to be far different
than the above quotations might seem to suggest.
      While Adams continues to claim throughout her work that horrendous evils
are dehumanizing and personality destroying and that important examples of
     15. Adams, p. 37.
     16. Adams, p. 26.
     17. Adams, p. 27.

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horrendous evils are in fact embodied in attempts to degrade human beings to the
level of animal awareness, she never seems to acknowledge that these assertions
stand in stark contrast to her more technical attempts to define horrendous evils.
The most obvious problem rests with the definition: horrendous evils require
the evaluation of one’s life as not being worth living. This evaluation is clearly
an example of meaning-making, as Adams herself recognizes when she writes
“On my conception, horrors afflict persons insofar as they are actual or potential
meaning-makers” insofar as they “significantly damage the individual’s powers
to make positive sense of his/her life.”18 However, the true degrading of a human
to animal levels of cognition would seem to place them beyond the reach of
horrors, as Adams writes “If all mammals and perhaps most kinds of birds,
reptiles, and fish suffer pain, many naturally lack self-consciousness and the sort
of transtemporal psychic unity necessary to participate in horrors.”19 Adams
even gives us the means by which a sufficient degree of dehumanization can
be accomplished: the elimination of self-consciousness and of the transtemporal
psychic unity by which the sort of evaluation necessary for horrendous evils can
occur.20
      It is a tragic reality that the level of dehumanization necessary to place one
beyond the reach of horrors is not only possible but extent. Serious traumas,
whether the result of agency or accident, are capable of shattering the psyche of
a person to a sufficient degree as to break down the cognitive processes to which
Adams refers. Sufficient degrees of pain, fear, or pressure can render victims cata-
tonic, shatter their worldview, disrupt their ability to view things in a meaningful
temporal sequence, eliminate their ability to establish the interrelated networks
of conceptual relations that are the characteristic of what we consider rational
thought. What’s more, there is no shortage of means by which to cause these
disruptions. Even short of the physical altering of the brain, repeated exposure to
mind altering chemicals has been known to result in permanent psychosis.21
      Somewhat more ambiguous is the notion of what one might call an inspired
anticognitive stance. One might consider, for instance, people who have suffered
evils such that, though the suffering itself has left their cognitive capacities techni-
cally intact, they are nonetheless prompted to destroy those self-same processes as
a response to what their suffering. In the 1990 psychological thriller Jacob’s Ladder,
Tim Robbins portrays Jacob, a man who, in spite of having a PhD in philosophy
and exceptional intelligence, assumes an anticognitive stance after witnessing the
horrors of the Vietnam War. When asked about his mindless job, his drug abuse,
his life of excess and his utter failure to employ his vast philosophical talents,
        18. Adams, p. 28, emphasis mine.
        19. Adams, p. 28.
        20. A related problem, proposed by Andrew Chignell, is that it would seem that horrendous
evils, by nature, are incapable of afflicting beings such as infants, who have yet to develop the
meaning-making capacities necessary for the evaluative component of said evils. Cf. Andrew
Chignell, “The Problem of Infant Suffering,” Religious Studies, Vol. 34. No. 2 (May, 1998).
        21. Cf. J.R. Smythies, “The Mescaline Phenomena”, The British Journal of Philosophy of Science,
Vol. 3, No. 12, Feb. 1953.


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Jacob tellingly replies “After ‘Nam, I didn’t want to think anymore.” While such a
character may well have been afflicted by horrendous evils and, indeed, may well
have been inspired by such evils to take an anticognitivist stance, said stance can
nonetheless lead to a no less total destruction of that person’s meaning-making
capacities than would the intentional destruction of those faculties by an evil
agent.
      Thus, it would seem that we have three types of meaning-maker related
evil for which Adams seems incapable of giving an account. The perpetrators of
horrendous evils seem, in spite of Adams’ assertion to the contrary, to be incapable
of the kind of self-reflection necessary for the evaluation of their lives as being
not worth living (as a result of the horrendous evils they perpetrate, anyway).
It seems possible that there exist individuals whose meaning-making processes
have become corrupted such as to make them unable to be subject to horrendous
evils because of a perverse willingness to place any evils whatsoever into their
criterion of a life that is good on the whole. Finally, there are those who, either
by virtue of the quality and quantity of their suffering or their own choices in
response to that suffering, are incapable of meaning-making even to the degree
necessary to declare their lives to be not worth living.
      It is important that we evaluate our consideration of the aforementioned
varieties of evil in light of their relationship to Adams’ project. It is, after all,
Adams’ own account of our capacity to conceive of horrors that leads to our
concern about the perpetrator of horrors, just as it is her discussion of damage to
and destruction of our meaning-making faculties that prompts our concerns with
evils characterized by such effects. While only our concern with the perpetrators
of horrendous evils seems to entail a direct contradiction within Adams’ thought,
the latter two varieties of evil certainly seem to suggest varying levels of confusion
in her definitions. After all, Adams sees both the damaging and destruction of our
meaning-making capacities as being subsumable into her account of horrendous
evils, even though such evils preclude the very thing by which she would have
us define horrendous evils: the possibility of a certain sort of self-evaluation.
      Nor is Adams’ lack of clarity in this regard unmentioned in the literature.
Indeed, Philip Quinn, in his review of Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God,
writes:
     Notions such as meaning and symbolic value must bear a heavy explanatory
     load in the account Adams offers of how horrors can be defeated. Even if one
     rejects, as I do, positivist scruples about speaking of such things as the meaning
     of experiences within a human life, one can be seriously perplexed by talk of
     this sort. Philosophers who engage in it owe their colleagues an explication
     of how they employ such vocabulary, and Adams does not provide one. She
     thereby leaves us without explicit standards by which to assess her claim that
     horrendous evils can be defeated by being given positive meaning through
     integration into a relationship with God.22

    22. Philip Quinn, “Review: Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God by Marilyn McCord
Adams”, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 110, No. 3, (July 2001), p. 478.


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                                      Daniel Ambord: Evil, Meaning and Meaning-Makers


I would contend that the lack of clarity discussed by Quinn is precisely the source
of many of the concerns at issue in our inquiry. Thus, our discussion assumes two
possible roles. The first of these is to merely demonstrate some of the dangers
associated with the aforementioned lack of clarity and allow said dangers to
provide Adams with an imperative similar to that provided by Quinn’s criticism,
namely, to provide an explanation of the vocabulary she employs. The second
and more interesting possibility is to propose certain recategorizations by which
we may preserve as many of Adams’ presuppositions as possible.
      If we were merely concerned with the revelation of a certain lack of clarity
in Adams’ language and a particular inconsistency of in one area of her reasoning
than our task would now be complete. However, in order to lay the groundwork
for a recategorization of the types of evil we have considered such as to preserve
as much of Adams’ thought as possible while nonetheless making room for ap-
propriate levels of growth, we have yet more things to explain! After all, the
appearance of unwanted types of evil that do not fit neatly into the categories
into which one would like to put them, while perhaps demonstrative of a need
to tidy one’s vocabulary and reasoning, is nonetheless not necessarily a threat to
one’s broader project. Thus, we must first consider precisely what threat our three
types of evil pose to Adams’ project as a whole.
      Adams sees her primary burden as being the demonstrating that even hor-
rendous evils can be defeated by being integrated into a relationship with God.
Intuitively, it seems likely that most non-horrendous evils could likewise be so in-
tegrated (although such integration would not necessarily require divine aid). The
problem with the types of evil we have unearthed is that it would seem that they
are not unproblematically subsumable into a meaningful, positive life even with
God’s assistance. If perpetrators of horrendous evils are unable to conceive of the
evils they perpetrate, would their relationship with God entail God’s provision of
understanding of such evils to the person in question, such that said person could
experience them as horrendous evils and be rehabilitated in the manner Adams
suggests and, if so, how exactly would God be able to do so without radically
changing the personality of the person in question? The case of those who have
damaged meaning-making processes seems to be not whether God could repair
those processes (surely He could) but rather whether He could do so without,
paradoxically, rendering the evils at play in the lives of said persons horrendous
(if only as a step towards some greater rehabilitation). Finally, would God be able
to somehow regenerate the meaning-making capacities of those for whom such
capacities have been destroyed and, if so, could he do so without radical alter-
ations to the personalities of the subjects such as to compromise their free will
and their dignity as agents? These questions introduce a number of disturbing
possibilities with respect to the process of rehabilitation that Adams endorses.
      Let us consider some of these possibilities in greater detail. If a person dies
and comes into a relationship with God, and God heals his warped meaning-
making processes, it seems possible that God, in so doing, would be instantiating
horrendous evils in the life of the aforementioned person. If one performs or suf-
fers an evil that ought to be considered horrendous, but is unable to render it such

                            Ars Disputandi [http://www.ArsDisputandi.org] 10 (2010) | 47
                                       Daniel Ambord: Evil, Meaning and Meaning-Makers


(by way of the right sort of evaluation of the value of one’s life) then the correction
of this diminished capacity might seem to necessarily entail the rendering of the
experiences in that persons life horrendous ex post facto. Even if God were to do
this as part of a broader process of spiritual rehabilitation, it still seems highly
suspect for God to be able to so directly inflict such negative meaning-making
upon someone. More disturbing still, is the prospect of a God who performs
radical and invasive adjustments to the meaning-capacities of perpetrators of
horrendous evils who are unable to conceive of their crimes and victims of evils
of sufficient power as to destroy the meaning-making capacities of their victims.
Since such persons are, in different ways, constitutionally incapable of being sub-
ject to a kind and persuasive reappropriation of their meaning-making faculties
by way of a relationship with God, they seem instead to only be subjectable to
God’s direct intervention and adjustment of said capacities in a way disturbingly
reminiscent of the manner in which Dietrich zur Linde’s Nazis forcefully adjust
and appropriate the meaning-making capacities of their victims.
      Before we go on to consider possible answers to these concerns, it is worth
taking a moment to consider whether or not our doing so is strictly necessary.
Specifically, Andrew Chignell, in his writings on Adams’ account of horrendous
evil (and, in particular, on the implications of that account for the problem of infant
suffering) suggests that Adams is under no obligation to demonstrate that non-
horrendous evils are defeasible because they “will be balanced out (engulfed!) by
the value of post-mortem intimacy with God.”23 Certainly, it is tempting to apply
Chignell’s interpretation of Adams’ position to our own concerns and simply
declare the warping or destruction of meaning-making capacity as productive of
a type of evil that is “neither horrendous nor defeasible” and simply allow that
such evils can be balanced off (whether in life or through an afterlife characterized
by the joys associated with a union with God). While it may be that this balancing
off is sufficient for dealing with those who are exposed to evil at a time when
their capacities (for reason’s developmental or otherwise) render them incapable
of rendering an evil horrendous, such cases are surely very different from those in
which an evil influences, corrupts, or destroys the otherwise functional meaning-
making capacities of a victim.
      Horrendous evils and evils that destroy or distort the meaning-making ca-
pacity of a subject have in common the simple fact that they affect or influence the
meaning-making process. The reason I take these evils to require some treatment
other than mere balancing off is that meaning-making is itself a precondition for
an experience of the divine. In other words, the aforementioned varieties of evil
are not subject to balancing out precisely because they preclude (by way of their
disruption, by whatever means, of a subject’s meaning-making capacity) the sort
of experience of the divine (or rather, the positive appropriation of such into one’s
view of a worthwhile life) that is involved in the sort of balancing out assumed
by both Adams and Chignell. Therefore, prior to having meaningful access to an
experience of the divine, one’s meaning-making capacities need to be in a certain
     23. Chignell, p. 26.


                             Ars Disputandi [http://www.ArsDisputandi.org] 10 (2010) | 48
                                          Daniel Ambord: Evil, Meaning and Meaning-Makers


working order and, in instances in which these capacities have been twisted or
destroyed (that is, damaged by way of either horrendous evils, or the evils pro-
posed in this inquiry), these capacities need to be rehabilitated. Thus, we must
conclude that non-horrendous evils that damage or pervert our meaning-making
capacities cannot merely be dealt with by balancing off but must, no less than
horrendous evils, be dealt with by some form of divine rehabilitation.24
      Here once again we find ourselves at a crossroads, for if the sorts of meaning-
making corrupting/destroying evils mentioned in this account must be subject to
some sort of divine rehabilitation, then the objections to the possibility or ac-
ceptability of said rehabilitation would seem to have serious implications for our
efforts to sustain and expand Adams’ project. Surely, it is possible that, given
a more precise and extensive account of the rehabilitation process that Adams
seems to be considering, the meaning destroying/distorting evils considered by
this inquiry may find themselves treatable by divine love in a satisfying fashion
than the horrendous evils with which Adams explicitly concerns herself. It is
possible that the intrusive nature of the rebuilding of shattered meaning-making
faculties, or the construction of one’s constitutionally absent during life, is a pill
that Adams is willing to swallow, subsuming these activities under the divine
role of enabler of meaning-making activity. It is also possible that Adams is will-
ing to accept that divine rehabilitation (like its human counterpart) may, under
special circumstances, entail the unpleasant but necessary revisiting of the hor-
rendousness of evils at play in one’s life, in order to then incorporate those evils
into a satisfying account of that life. Alternatively, it may be that the process of
spiritual rehabilitation at issue would itself render such a revisitation painless or
even pleasant.
      It is neither within the scope of this paper, nor the power of its writer, to
produce the kind of thorough and carefully thought out responses to these issues
that the maintenance of Adams’ project would seem to require. The addition of
these different types of evil, though problematic, does seem to entail a useful and
indeed necessary expansion of Adams’ project. Experience and intuition tell us
that the evils we have considered are not only possible but cruelly extent and
our reasoning tells us that they are not readily subsumable into Adams’ other-
wise useful category of horrendous evils. Adams’ central points, her emphasis
on meaning-making and the personal nature of evils, the interaction of evils with
the meaning-making process, and the potential solution to said evils in the ed-
ucational and rehabilitative capacities of a loving and all-powerful God are all
valuable and excellent contributions to the literature. It is only fitting that we
continue to build upon the firm foundation that Adams has provided for us,
and endeavor to expand upon and make improvements to a project that has the
potential to offer philosophers of religion unique insights into the problem of evil.


       24. I am indebted to my wife and fellow scholar Michelle Hadley-Ambord for helping me
to work out some of my intuitions with respect to why some of the evils I consider in this work
are related to the horrendous evils described by Adams and, consequently, deserving of similar
treatment by God.


                               Ars Disputandi [http://www.ArsDisputandi.org] 10 (2010) | 49

				
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