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Power and Choice: A Philosophical Inquiry into Evil

For those of us in the midst of it, the breakneck rate of cultural, scientific, and technological evolution is hard to fully appreciate. Harder still to grasp are the radical long-term implications behind this frenzied state of change that so defines our era. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, renowned cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker proposed that humankind’s deepest aspiration is “to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation,” the implication being that encased as we may be in fragile, decaying bodies, we are simultaneously compelled to rise above our mortal nature and inhabit a higher and immensely more powerful state of being. Indeed, few would argue against the notion that with the ability to tap into collective knowledge at will via the Internet, manipulate the genetic blueprints of life, and end civilization at the push of a button, humanity truly seems to be acquiring divine-like characteristics.

In the face of this dazzling leap from apes to gods, one question takes center stage: Will we learn to wield our growing power benevolently, or will we instead use it to create a dystopian future? The problem of evil, ancient as civilization itself, takes on added significance in a world where one unwise decision can result in the death of millions. Hollywood’s current obsession with post-apocalyptic tales is just one indication that the sense looms large in our collective awareness of the urgency behind this monumental choice between creativity and destruction.

One thing is certain: no amount of technological or scientific innovation will enable humanity to conquer its demons if we fail to come to terms with evil. What is it? Why does it exist? Can we overcome it? These issues, traditionally dealt with in a theological context, are becoming increasingly relevant to society at large.

Eager to pursue our most pressing questions on the topic, we approached Department of Philosophy and Classics’ Jill Graper Hernandez for an enlightening exchange. Hernandez, a recent recipient of the President’s Distinguished Achievement Award in Research and Teaching, has taught, lectured publicly, and published extensively on the problem of evil, most recently in the form of a monograph titled Gabriel Marcel’s Ethics of Hope: Evil, God, and Virtue. She is currently writing a book on the contribution of women philosophers in the early modern period.


A: That question might be older than Thales’ query as to what is the source of all things! Theologians might focus on the inherited defect of ‘original sin’; anthropologists might point to a particular culture’s idea of evil as mystical, shadowy, or dark; sociologists might wonder if the question itself is regressive because it circles back to eras of witch hunts and scarlet letters. In my experience, philosophers are less keen to label particular acts or instances as ‘evil,’ but would want to understand what we mean by the term itself.

One common philosophical way of thinking about evil is as a measure of suffering. There is suffering that comes about metaphysically (I’m a physically limited being, so I can’t run a 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, can’t remember the names of my students on the first day, and get frustrated when I trip over toys my kids have left out); there is suffering that comes about naturally (many in our own state have suffered as a result of hurricanes, tornadoes, and the like); and there is suffering that comes about from my own choices (imagine if I lied about running a 4.4 forty, didn’t care if I ever learned my students’ names, and lashed out in anger over tripping over the kids’ toys).

My recent research focuses on a category of moral evil called ‘atrocious evils.’ These aren’t individual claims to suffering (so, not the suffering that results to my own kids if I lash out in anger), but a category of moral evils that are culpable, preventable, and always create disproportionate harm. Atheist philosopher Claudia Card says, “evils are reasonably foreseeable intolerable harms produced (maintained, supported, tolerated, and so on) by culpable wrongdoing. So understood, evils have two irreducibly distinct components: a harm component and an agency component.” So, think holocaust, global poverty, and genocidal rape, but also things like domestic violence, gross civil rights abuses, and so on.


A: This is really the root of the question of the problem of evil. If there is a God, and God is perfect, then God should know the evil that will occur (given that such a being would be omniscient), should want to prevent evil from happening in the world (since such a being would be omnibenevolent), and should be able to prevent or limit evil from occurring (since such a being would be omnipotent). But, evil is in the world – so, what gives?

There are many answers to this question, and my work has focused on several of them. One very interesting response actually comes from contemporary atheists like Card who argue that theists have hijacked the concept ‘evil,’ removed it from human agency, and imbued it with theistic tones, whereas ‘evil’ should be secularized so that we as humans can hold responsible those among us who perform the most heinous evils (called ‘atrocities’). That move is very compelling. My current research indicates that the female scholars of the early modern period share Card’s desire to use a concrete conception of ‘evil’, but they were also theists who defended divine perfection in spite of the evil in the world. Fascinating stuff!


A: You know, as a pithy response, my kneejerk reaction is, ‘Well, if you want to eliminate free will.’ But, let’s think about this together a little further. I’ve categorized evil as tied to suffering. If evil is just suffering, though, we could do away with suffering and evil would be eliminated too. The Stoics had a view that was similar to this. Epictetus said things like, “When your wife dies do not say, ‘I have lost her’, say, ‘I have given her back.’ ” Freedom, for the Stoics, was knowing what to give assent to. Since we can’t control things that happen to us, we can focus instead on what we can control – our emotions about those things. Suffering comes about when we attempt to control what we cannot actually control. When we learn to care about only what we can control, we stop suffering. The Buddhists are on to this, too.

So, do the Stoics have the answer to this? Well, here is where we might be wrong to think about evil as suffering, instead of simply tied to it. If no one suffered as a result of murder, rape, and torture, would those acts no longer be evil? We should pause before saying “yes.” Just as theists who believe in free will wouldn’t trade in their freedom in order to eliminate evil in the world, so too acts like murder, rape, and torture (even if imagined as not causing suffering) would still be acts of forcing, coercing, and imposing another person’s will on someone else’s, and that seems… well, wrong.

Even if we could live in a world without suffering (and, given that we are sentient, experiencing, loving beings the pragmatic sense is that we can’t live in a world without suffering) we could still have evil in the world. At the end of the day, the question of the problem of evil really is a communal one: what can I do to ease suffering, to motivate healing, and to effectuate peace around me – in the world?

Faculty Profile: Jill Hernandez


Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy and Classics


BA, Philosophy, Taylor University
MA, Philosophy, Texas A&M University
PhD, Philosophy, University of Memphis

What makes me laugh is...

I am a pretty easy laugh, truth be told, which is great, because I have two comedians at home, Allie (12) and Sofie (5), who both do their best to get me to laugh whenever possible. If I need a laugh and they aren’t around, my sense of humor can be found more along the lines of Larry David or Ellen DeGeneres, but I would never say no to watching The Big Lebowski.

In my leisure time...

I joke with my husband, Gustavo, that I am the most boring person alive. We don’t have a lot of time for doing anything.… I’m a wife, mother, and a professor! Actually, I was pregnant with Sofie when I came to UTSA, and I remember thinking I just had to make it until she was in kindergarten, and then I would have time to write and work during the day, instead of during the late-night hours. She starts kindergarten this fall, and I know it’s going to be such a change. Part of those changes will be running more (I ran my first half-marathon in Nov. ’12), but shifting some of my research to daytime hours will no doubt leave me free to pick up a hobby—like maybe coaching a little-league soccer team.

My favorite place in the world is...

Home. As faculty, we’ve traveled all over the world, and seen many things that have made life fulfilling, and have satisfied our intellectual curiosity. But, it’s as the Brian Andreas poem says, “Someday, the light will shine like a sun through my skin & they will say, ‘What have you done with your life?’ and though there are many moments I think I will remember, in the end, I will be proud to say, I was one of us.”

I chose to study philosophy because...

Philosophy majors have the highest average on the LSAT out of any other major! True—I wanted to go into law, and I heard that stat as an undergrad and, as a pragmatist, thought I’d better major in philosophy. But, then the questions we were discussing in class became the questions I went to bed at night thinking about, and one thing led to another, as they say. What’s a little interesting to my story is that I was drawn in part to philosophy because it did not come naturally to me. A’s came easy to me, but I got B’s in my first semester in philosophy, and I loved the challenge of actually having to work to do well. Sometimes I still feel like philosophy doesn’t come naturally. One of my graduate professors said, “Philosophy is difficult, which is why I think about it all the time.” Of course, when what you are thinking about are the really interesting questions in life, it makes thinking about them all the time far more exciting!

What keeps me doing philosophy is probably an even richer question, because any faculty member will admit that the academic life can be difficult, and in philosophy (particularly for women, who are far underrepresented in the field), it can be tough to continue to commit yourself to what can be an unforgiving discipline. But, I remain a bit doe-eyed about philosophy’s potential to impact the world. Gabriel Marcel called philosophers “gatekeepers” because of their call to remind everyone of the need for consistency of thought and clarity of reason, and, especially, respect for the dignity of humanity. Most belief, philosophical belief included, can be demanding to maintain because by articulating a belief, you are making a commitment that one view is better than another. Beliefs are not like opinions in that way, that come and go. Beliefs stick, and then can change other beliefs. Frederick Buechner wrote that if your commitment is a kind of thing that is ungrounded, that just occurs to you once “like some kind of spiritual plastic surgery” he thinks “you’re either pulling the wool over your own eyes or trying to pull it over mine. Every morning you should wake up in your bed and ask yourself: ‘Can I believe it all again today?’… If your answer’s always Yes, then you probably don’t know what believing means. At least five times out of ten the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears and…great laughter.” That sums up nicely my philosophical journey.

My students might say...

My students would tell you that I care about whether they understand the philosophical questions we are thinking about in class, and that I bring a lot of energy to the classroom. It can be daunting for an undergraduate to provide a critique, say, of Aristotle, but I try to foster an environment in class where even the newcomer to philosophy has something important to say.

My words of philosophical wisdom are...

This is such a funny question! Let me hear yours so I can learn.