Must Evil Exist? No

One of the five paintings of Extermination of Evil portrays Sendan Kendatsuba, one of the eight guardians of Buddhist law, banishing evil.

I recently received a letter from a former student who was trying to defend the necessity of evil. She wondered: “can there be goodness without badness?” While most people non-reflexively answer this question with a resounding no, I do not.  I’ve never found the arguments that there must be bad in order for there to be good, convincing.

First of all, this is a metaphysical question about the nature of reality. Behind it lies the idea is that there is some kind of balance or symmetry in reality. There’s light and shadow, knowledge and ignorance, sleeping and waking, life and death, yin and yang, etc. So for every attribute, we can probably talk about its opposite attribute. But is there an opposite of everything? Of a tree? A person? A chair? Can there only be trees, people or chairs if there are not-trees, not-persons, not-chairs? You could say that the opposites of being and non-being underlie all these examples. But can there only be being if there’s non-being? Thousands of years ago Parmenides claimed that there can’t be non-being.

Also, consider that while shadows can’t exist without light, light can exist without shadow. While ignorance can’t exist without knowledge, knowledge can exist without ignorance. Moreover, we can easily imagine beings who don’t sleep or die or do evil. So while there is a lot to be said here, I’m just not convinced that reality that there has to be badness for there to be goodness.

This question could also be construed as an epistemological one. Can we know goodness without badness? If we lived in a perfect world, could we imagine what an imperfect one would be like? I don’t see why not. If I’ve only known good beings, thoughts or behaviors, why couldn’t I conceive of their opposites? To say I couldn’t is to limit our imagination. So I why we could only know badness if there’s goodness.

I think the prevalence of this idea, at least in Western culture, derives from Christian theodicy. The argument that badness is somehow necessary is often used by religious apologists as an excuse for, and a defense of, the existence of evil in a world created by an omnibenevolent god. But surely their omnipotent god could have created a world with only good. Of course, the religious apologist will reply that there must be badness to build our souls, or help us appreciate good, or to let us exercise our free will, etc. But I don’t think that building our characters or the existence of free will—assuming the latter even exists—are worth the price of evil. So, I agree with the near-unanimous view of philosophers that a theodicy, a full explanation of evil, isn’t possible and defenses of evil don’t work either. Moreover, I’d much prefer to live in a reality without evil.

Now some claim that a world without badness is impossible? But why? I can imagine such a world, or that an omnipotent being could have made it.

Another reason I reject the “there has to be badness” idea is that it is used as an excuse for evil. The idea that evil is necessary limits us; it causes us to accept evil as necessary. But death from the plague wasn’t inevitable, nor is slavery, torture, misogyny or racism. We make moral progress because we reject the status quo. So I don’t accept any evil. Not pain, torture, anxiety, depression, alienation, loneliness, hatred, war, death … not any of it. I can imagine a world without all these things. I can imagine a heaven on earth.

And if we create a heaven on earth or in a simulated reality and find that we no longer appreciate the goodness, then I suppose we can add some badness to reality to help us remember how good we have it. Then that badness really would be good for us. (If goodness can’t exist without badness, then how is a supernatural heaven possible? Do the Gods have to give us an occasional electric shock to remind us of how good heaven is?) But of course, all this seems silly. Of course, we know that evil is bad; we have just come to accept it because we don’t think there’s much we can do about it. But to conclude, as the religious apologists do, that evil is just the privation of good (Augustine), or that this the best of all possible worlds (Leibniz), is just plain stupid. Pain, suffering, loneliness, death, depression and all the rest are really bad, and this is not the best of all possible worlds.

So I don’t see why there has to be badness for there to be goodness. There can be only goodness, which is how religious believers imagine their heaven. Still a supernatural heaven is a fantasy and we don’t have heaven here on earth either, but we can create one if we aren’t deterred by ideas that convince us that there must be badness.

Some men see things as they are and ask why? Others dream things that never were, and ask why not?” ~ George Bernard Shaw

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7 thoughts on “Must Evil Exist? No

  1. Thanks for the insight. It leaves me with wonder then, if it would be meaningful to discuss about ‘evil without goodness’ to endorse a view on the unnecessariness of God’s existence. Thanks.

  2. I suppose that evil without goodness would correspond to the idea of hell. Of course a literal hell is a fiction so I’m not sure how it would figure in the god debate.

  3. I had read Revelation. It’s said there that someday there would be someone who will unite all nations, he will win the world’s respect through flattery with no violence, originally there would be 10 other rulers, but they soon surrender their crowns to only this one person, and that’s where this person will reveal his true agenda, that he’s a god, proving it so by giving the world miracles and summoning a great beast, and the world will agree with this person.

    But then, Jesus Christ will return and defeat this beast once and for all, and creating a new earth where there is only good, all of humanity united and even animals no matter how vicious they were will become a friend of everyone, a lion eating hays with a goat.

    And I wonder, is that world possible? Isn’t evil somehow innate or according to this book, it’s the devil’s work and their genes, cause once upon a time, they took human as mates and had given birth to children of their blood, nephilim. They deceive. They tempt. They confuse.

    At first I thought, what about the struggles? Don’t we admire struggles no matter how unknowingly. We like stories about people who triumph against many problems. If we know the truth, we can no longer seek it. If we know every mystery of the universe, we can no longer uncover them. If there is no more ignorance, there is no more to seek. If there is no tragedies, how can we feel the feeling of overcoming it and moving on, to hope and give faith to your future and accept the many uncertainty of life.

    It’s what make us human, therefore without this we are no longer humans. What will we be? What new excitement shall replace the old? Perhaps the thought scared me because it’s an unknown. And I have love the process more than the cause, like a soldier who likes fighting more than they value their people and their country. It will be difficult for them when the war ended, they who shine in violence who once fights against it became the instigators.

    As a lover of uncovering mystery, what else can I do in such a world? Perhaps the God will provide us with infinite mysteries. Create more adventures for us to undertake.

    Light is created with darkness. Is it fated for there to always have an opposition? A rival that balance each other. For the light is first created before the dark. Satan is once the highest Divine angel. Angels fall. The good became evil. Why?
    Is there a natural law that even a God couldn’t control, try as he might?

    Like a utopia, a beautiful paradise, someone again will eventually come to break it. It’s uncontrollable, they seem to come out of nowhere. And again the cycle begins, where we struggle in obtaining a taste of that paradise once more. It’s endless. You couldn’t tell where it begins, and there is no end.

    Perhaps we couldn’t really be good if we do not understand and experience being evil. Vice versa. In that way, there is clearly a choice. You both knew it intrinsically, what do you choose in the end?

    Perhaps a world without evil is a world without choice. Vice versa.

  4. Christianity is less about right and wrong and more about the nature of relationships- about the Self and its interactions with the Divine and Others, as are many religions. No, there does not have to be evil in order for there to be good. Assuming that the Christian god is good, then God being inherently eternal and good would mean that even if nothing had ever been created, neither the angels nor the humans nor the plants nor the animals, He would still be good.

    I think the reason why many religious apologists focus on evil is because many people in both eastern and western cultures want to know the cause of suffering, why it exists, and how to escape from it. I’m sure there are way less problematic answers from many other religious apologists but we live in an escapist world, so we get escapist answers.

    Also, I think the question of “Can there be good without evil?” and “Can there be awareness of good without evil?” are conflated, which gets touched on here and we are shown that the author agrees with the former and latter. I think the first one is a matter of wording. Better wording would be along the likes of “Can we experience good without evil?” and then I get the feeling that many others would respond “yes.”

    “Can we appreciate good without evil?” is probably the hardest to answer.

    Someone commented about looking for an argument as to why God’s existence is unnecessary. Let’s suppose this god is not the god in Christianity and let’s suppose that this god doesn’t even have to be the only god. Let’s say we can have one god or multiple gods. Surely we did not come from nowhere and surely we do not just happen to have the characteristics we have, including awareness of morals and ethics. We do not need to believe in a god/gods in order to do good, but I think, however, that an acknowledgement of a higher being/greater influence of some sort is very much necessary.

    Thanks for an article on a fascinating topic! I wish there hadn’t been so many digs at Christianity, my near and dear faith, but I get it. : )

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