Natural evil (also known as surd evil) is the result of any event perceived to be morally negative and that is not caused by the action or inaction of an agent, such as a person. It is a form of evil that stands in contradistinction to moral evil.
Surd is the Latin translation of the Greek word for allogos, which is an antonym to logos. Given the versatility of logos, surd may assume a variety of meanings; most common are 'speechless' and 'irrational.' The latter is inferred here.
Nature of natural evil
Moral evil results from a perpetrator, one who intentionally inflicts the evil. Natural evil has only victims, and is generally taken to be the result of natural processes. The "evil" thus identified is evil only from the perspective of those affected and who perceive it as an affliction. Examples include cancer, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and other phenomena which inflict suffering with apparently no accompanying mitigating good. Such phenomena inflict "evil" on victims, but with no human perpetrator to blame for it.
The problem for a loving God
A historical example of natural evil that greatly influenced Age of Enlightenment
thought is the 1755 Lisbon earthquake
famously argued that a God
which would allow such a natural evil to occur could not be called benevolent
. He criticized the optimists
such as Leibniz
who viewed the universe through the lens of theodicy
and believed their accommodation of the problem of evil was simply naive. The character of Pangloss
was meant to parody such sentiments. This leads to one of the great areas of debate in the philosophy of religion
, the problem of evil
Natural or moral evil?
Jean Jacques Rousseau
responded to Voltaire's criticism of the optimists by pointing out that the value judgement
required in order to declare the Lisbon Earthquake a natural evil ignored the fact that the human endeavour of the construction and organization of the city of Lisbon was also to blame for the horrors recounted as they had contributed to the level of suffering. It was, after all, the collapsing buildings, the fires, and the close human confinement that led to much of the death.
The question of whether natural disasters such as hurricanes might be natural or moral evil is complicated by new understandings of the effects, such as global warming, of our collective actions on events that were previously considered to be out of our control.