Is Nature Evil?

“When beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.” — Herman Melville, “Moby Dick.”

Philosophers contend that evil comes in two varieties: human and natural. Human evil is the harm we inflict on ourselves, other people and perhaps on the universe. We do so either through our actions or by failing to act when we should. Natural evil, on the other hand, is the destruction to human life and property caused by naturally occurring events, such as tornados, floods, and earthquakes.

In recent years, there’s been a shift in the zeitgeist, such that those events which had, in previous ages, been regarded as due to nature are instead regarded as due to the actions of human beings. Consequently, the category of natural evil has shrunk and the category of human evil has greatly expanded.

This new zeitgeist finds expression in efforts to explain recent events, such as the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. No doubt, the whole event was politicized. President Bush was blamed for not having acted sooner to provide disaster relief. One way or another, the blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of human beings, rather than attributing it to nature herself.

The preoccupation with supposed man-made global warming is also a product of this wish to attribute the cause of naturally occurring events, such as occurs over the centuries, solely to the misdeeds of human beings. Not surprisingly, some people have blamed the recent earthquake in Haiti on global warming and, therefore, on human evil.

From Tragic to Moral Vision
Politics alone cannot explain the desire to blame human beings, when such natural disasters occur. There is something deeper going on here and it has to do with the wish to find fault and, therefore, meaning in disasters.

If a disaster is simply due to nature, then we inhabit a tragic universe, a universe in which the gods seem indifferent to man’s plight. Even worse is the possibility, as Shakespeare suggests, that “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods,/ They kill us for their sport.”

Such thinking often leads to the thought that if God exists, He is both omnipotent and good. If he possessed those qualities, he would not permit evil. Since natural evil exists, He must either not be omnipotent or not be good. This theological problem can easily lead a person to atheism and to the sense that life is meaningless.

To avoid meaninglessness, people will instead shift from a kind of tragic vision of the universe to a moral vision. They will claim, in other words, that God is innocent. It is, on the contrary, human being who are responsible for the calamities that befall us.

An example from my personal life comes to mind. Whenever anyone in my family would catch a cold or the flu, my father would attribute it to having violated some law of hygiene, such as not having washed our hands. He may certainly have been right, at times, but he was loathe to believe that a person could get sick without being responsible for his illness. He, therefore, denied the unwilled, tragic dimension of human suffering, preferring to attribute a quasi-moral meaning to it.

The Tragedy at SeaWorld
Yesterday, Dawn Brancheau — an animal trainer, at “SeaWorld” aquarium and park, in Orlando Florida — accidentally fell in a pool and was murdered by a killer whale. As it turns out, this particular whale had previously killed two other people, in previous years. One of the reasons why this has become a major news story is that it raises some perplexing questions about man, nature and evil. Of course, most readers are unaware of the real source of their fascination with this news story: their unresolved moral issues.

Following most online newspaper articles, one typically finds reader posts. In the case of this story, most of the posts blame human beings for subjecting animals to being pent-up, of not allowing the whales free reign in their natural habitat, the ocean. That form of captivity, known as zoos and aquariums, is certainly unfair to the whales and other animals. Such posts arise partly out of compassion for animals and partly out of the contemporary romanticizing of nurture. Many people believe that nature is as pure and innocent as Bambi and that life’s problems arise when we interfere with nature. The premise of the film “Avatar” gives new life to the tired notion that those living in accord with their natural surroundings are good and that we, industrialized Americans, are evil.

The post about Ms. Brancheau’s death also express, a lesser extent, of grief over the animal trainer’s death and condolences offered to her family. But one sentiment rarely expressed in these posts is that the whale is evil. Evil here could simply mean that animals are amoral, for the categories of good and evil only seem to apply to the human world. In the natural world, they don’t seem to apply.

moby-dick1.jpgBut there was, at least, one great American writer who was not wiling to let nature off the hook so easily. Herman Melville raises the question, in his classic novel, Moby Dick, if the infamous white whale, was not simply a victim of human beings and that it was not simply acting to defend itself, but was actually malevolent in some way. Melville’s vision seems to invoke a much earlier notion, professed by the Gnostic philosophers, that the world was not the creation of a good god, but of an evil demiurge.

I might add that Richard Ellis, a marine conservationist with the American Museum of Natural History, states that killer whales have been in captivity for a long time and that it is highly unusual for a killer whale to kill a human being. He contends that the killer whale actually made a deliberate, intentional decision to kill the animal trainer!

Mr. Ellis does not speculate on what may have been the killer whale’s motive. Perhaps the whale was angry at being held in captivity and was seeking revenge. Perhaps the whale acted out of pure malice. Perhaps whales, in captivity, begin to exhibit psychopathology. In any case, if Mr. Ellis is correct, it might suggest that whales, at least those in captivity, are not just innocent creatures, driven of instinct. Rather, there may be more here than meets the eye.

Of course, for this to be a case not merely of natural evil, but of evil in the moral sense, would require that the whale was capable of making a free choice. That a whale could be capable is unlikely, for a certain degree of self-awareness, if not self-knowledge is necessary for free choice. Then, again, I find it challenging enough to fathom the motives of human beings, let alone to try to understand whales. To paraphrase the 1930s radio character, known as the Shadow, “Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of whales?”

I shall leave it to my readers to resolve, for themselves, the moral quandaries that natural disasters often evoke. It is important, in any case, to observe the shift that has been occurring, over the years, from attributing tragic disasters to natural evil to attributing them to the moral failings of human beings.


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