Thoughts on the tsunami (2)

In my earlier post on the tsunami I asked whether such a catastrophe had a moral dimension.  My conclusion:  “I think it does.  From a different perspective, morality is about the human confrontation with evil, and the tsunami, while a natural force, has worked great evil.”

James has posted a thoughtful comment questioning that conclusion.  “I fail to see how you make a connection between a relatively random force such as Nature, and a very specific intentional ‘force’ such as evil,” he writes, adding:  “Let us assume for a moment that nobody, not one living soul, lived in any of the areas affected, and nobody was harmed. Would this act still be reflected as evil in your opinion?”

An inanimate force, such as a tsunami, can’t be described as evil.  I agree with James on that score.  But an inanimate force can inflict suffering and death – and those are evils the human race must contend with and endure, regardless whether they come from human intention, human carelessness and neglect, an earthquake, or a disease like cancer.

The human condition is essentially tragic.  None of us will achieve but a small fraction of our wishes and desires.  All of us will die.  Morality is a community’s way of dealing with the sum of individual limitations, frustrations, conflicts, sufferings, and death.  Today most of these plagues come from other people, and our morality is rightfully people-centered.  But its higher purpose is to sustain human dignity as we grapple with the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

It would make no sense for me to embrace a way of life that gave me strength against tyranny and murder, yet left me internally defenseless against a natural catastrophe.

Would I still call the tsunami’s work evil, if no human being had been harmed?  Of course not.  I agree with James again.  Morality requires community – that is, a shared history and tradition.  Good and evil can only be discovered in the context of such a moral community.  For a far more insightful discussion of this subject, I recommend William James’ relatively short essay, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.”    Let me conclude with an extended quote from that essay:

Surely there is no status for good and evil to exist in, in a purely insentient world. How can one physical fact, considered simply as a physical fact, be “better” than another? Betterness is not a physical relation. In its mere material capacity, a thing can no more be good or bad than it can be pleasant or painful. Good for what? Good for the production of another physical fact, do you say? But what in a purely physical universe demands the production of that other fact? Physical facts simply are or are not; and neither when present or absent, can they be supposed to make demands. If they do, they can only do so by having desires; and then they have ceased to be purely physical facts, and have become facts of conscious sensibility. Goodness, badness, and obligation must be realized somewhere in order really to exist; and the first step in ethical philosophy is to see that no merely inorganic “nature of things” can realize them. Neither moral relations nor the moral law can swing in vacuo. Their only habitat can be a mind which feels them; and no world composed of merely physical facts can possibly be a world to which ethical propositions apply.



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