Optimism as the flipside of moral evil

For human beings, moral evil requires knowing some action is evil while thinking about only the way it is good. This sort of willful ignorance also opens the possibility of an inveterate optimism, i.e. to stand in the face of an evil while thinking about it only as a sort of good. William James collects all sorts of testimonies from people like this in Varietieswhere he gives the paradigm case of Walt Whitman.

This raises the question of the objectivity of evil, for the convertibility of goodness and being means that it is possible for there to be a being that we cannot see as evil but impossible for us to see an evil that we cannot see as a good. There is an intrinsic ambivalence to the judgment or experience of evil that cannot be universalized to the experience of good. But the possibility of gratuitous evil – an evil that cannot be seen as valuable or beneficial to life – requires just such a universalization.

If this is right, then the argument from evil involves a very serious mistake about the nature of good and evil, since the AFE can rest only on gratuitous evils, which require a transcendental pessimism equal to the sort of optimism we see in Walt Whitman. But such an equality requires an objective parity between good and evil which does not exist.

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