Posted by: aboutalbion | July 26, 2012

Evil (4)

The work of Nell Noddings is another example of a psychological approach to the discussion of evil, but this time from a feminist perspective.

Noddings is critical of Christian accounts of evil which defend God.  She points out that two consequences of the search for Christian explanations in which God somehow allows suffering for redemptive reasons are (a) “the ancient ritual of sacrificing the son” is perpetuated, and (b) that “we have inferred that we may cause one another to suffer for the same reasons”. [1989 p26]

The foundation of Noddings account of evil is the experience of women, the feeling of fear, and encounters with pain, helplessness, and separation. [1989 p120]  For Noddings, the elements of evil are the feelings of fear that are associated with pain; both physical pain, and the psychic pain that accompanies helplessness and separation.  She points out that these three foundation fears of pain, helplessness, and separation are present throughout our lives.

Noddings argues that “real evil … occurs when some [human] agent causes [this kind of] pain, or fails to alleviate it when he or she is clearly in a position to do so”. [1989 p99]

It follows from this definition that evil is an everyday inter-personal phenomenon “that requires acceptance, understanding, and steady control rather than great attempts to overcome it once and for all”. [1989 p210]  So Noddings asserts that “it is normal … to incline towards evil; it is pathological to ignore or deny this inclination”. [1989 p210]  She concludes that it is not possible to overcome evil, only “to live sensitively with as little of it as possible”. [1989 p244]

Noddings demonstrates that ordinary, law-abiding, decent people will inflict abuse – physical or emotional – not only in extreme circumstances but also in obedience to authorities perceived to be legitimate.  And such abuse always carries the signature of evil in that there is “either the intention to inflict pain or a willingness to accept pain as a known effect of our actions”. [1989 p210]  And here I find echoes of her earlier remarks to the effect that if the Christian God allows suffering for redemptive reasons, then we may cause one another to suffer for the same reasons.

From her feminist viewpoint, Noddings goes on to use the category of cultural evil to discuss poverty, racism, war, and sexism as prime examples of “accepted and respectable acts that we must now evaluate as cultural evils”. [1989 p104]

All this leads Noddings to observe that a discussion of “evil is thus intimately bound up in disputes over good”. [1989 p229]  Here, Noddings is outlining the logic by which evil reproduces itself.  In a confrontation with what we perceive as evil, we are likely to choose a course of action which is also evil – although we will be tempted to rationalise it as good.

I find Noddings’ account to be closer to my own experience.  I find it natural to consider good and evil at the same time.  It may even be the case that good and evil are two sides of the same coin.

So with the memory of horrific events committed by human agents in mind, I think the approach of Noddings deserves a wider audience …

[Noddings, N (1989) Women and Evil.  Berkley: University of California Press.]


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