Saturday, October 30, 2004


Ever since I saw a Now with Bill Moyers episode with Susan Neiman talking about the concept of evil my philosophical antennae started wiggling. For a brief span in college I flirted with the idea of majoring in philosophy. But my practical nature got the best of me and I majored in English instead (like English is really that much more practical than Philosophy). I got a chunk of philosophy in grad school in a theory class and lots of philosophy indirectly through literature. I don't often sit down and read Foucault or find myself wondering "What would Plato do?" And by no means do I consider myself well versed in philosophy. However, I do enjoy examining "the big questions." And that's why my antennae began to twitch during the NOW episode.   Due to my new found interest in the idea of evil and because of some research I am doing, I recently read an interesting book by Nel Noddings called Women and Evil. The book is a fascinating examination of evil in western thought. She discusses the problems of theodicy--the justification of God--and how we have never been able to adequately solve the problem of God and evil. Because we are determined to have an omniscient God who is all good, we have to have a reason for evil. Our solution has been to create an Other and blame that Other for whatever evils may befall us. The Other can be Satan, demons, devils, women, just as long as it isn't God. But it doesn't stop there because we have to justify why God would allow these evil Others to exist. It is at this point where we usually say that God has a reason that we mortal humans cannot see or understand. God allows us to suffer from evil for reasons like punishment, a test of faith or because we will somehow benefit from it. When it comes to women and evil it becomes clear that women have been intertwined with evil nearly from the beginning--from Eve to wicked witches and step-mothers. Women have been the easiest Other too deal with because we are physical bodies that can be made to submit or be killed. But at the same time women are necessary evils, so to speak, because we are needed to perpetuate humanity, raise the children and keep house. Because until recent history women have not been allowed much of a public voice, the concept of evil has been created almost entirely by men and women have been buying into it. But, Noddings wonders, what would a philosophy of evil based on women's experience be and could it potentially be useful? Noddings pushes aside religion and takes a wholly phenomenological approach. She carefully explains that while being wives, mothers, housekeepers and caretakers is not the sole experience of women, these are predominantly the roles we have been given to play and a basis for much of our historical lives. With that caveat, and also dismissing what she calls "natural evils" (fire, flood, tornado, etc), she turns to constructing a different concept of evil. Noddings concludes that pain, separation and helplessness "constitute great moral evils:"

  1. Inflicting pain (unless it can be demonstrated that doing so will or is at least likely to spare the victim greater pain in future)
  2. a. Inducing the pain of separation b. Neglecting relation so that the pain of separation follows or those separated are thereby dehumanized
  3. a. Deliberately or carelessly causing helplessness b. Creating elaborate systems of mystification that contribute to the fear of helplessness or to its actual maintenance
According to Noddings, "No justification can transform these evils into goods. From the perspective of women--whose task has been to preserve the lives of children, to maintain homes that provide physical and psychic comfort, and to care for the helpless--it is irrational to attempt to justify such deeds." I think on the whole Noddings is on to something. Her reconceptualization of evil makes sense to me. However, she offers no suggestions for changing the way society as a whole views evil. Nor does she offer any ideas about reconciling her phenomenological approach with religion. It is easy to separate evil and God in a book, but in the real world God isn't about to disappear any time soon. Thus, while I find Noddings ideas valuable on a theoretical level and potentially valuable in the concrete world, I don't see how they can go anywhere. Therefore they are stuck in being played out on a personal level with no real possibility of reaching the broader social realm. And while I buy into the rather romantic notion that one person can make a difference, for something like Noddings' philosophy of evil to take hold requires a critical mass of individuals and I just don't see that critical mass developing anywhere. But this is one thing I'd be glad to be wrong about.