Before the current pandemic, I only really thought of viruses when I got my yearly flu shot. But in light of the significant suffering and death caused by COVID-19, I’m sure none of us will ever think the same way about viruses again.
But how should we think about the pandemic in terms of the pain and suffering left in its wake? For example, should a pandemic be defined as a form of evil? If so, what kind of evil would it be?
Philosophers typically classify evil in two ways: moral evil and natural evil. First, moral evil consists of malevolent things done by a personal agent (e.g., murder, rape, robbery). Second, natural evil consists of pain, suffering, and destruction that results from natural disasters (e.g., floods, earthquakes, hurricanes).
Trade-Offs of Natural Evil
I view the coronavirus pandemic as a type of natural evil (again, like a natural disaster). Scientists affirm that only a fraction of viruses are harmful and potentially deadly.1 In fact, some viruses are not only beneficial but also even vital to human health and agriculture.2 So as a natural disaster, viruses carry trade-offs. That is, they can confer necessary benefits for human life and deliver potentially devastating effects. In this way they are similar to other natural disasters. For example, plate tectonics contribute to Earth’s habitability by acting as a global thermostat. But the same shifting tectonic plates also allow for potentially devastating earthquakes. Natural evil present a trade-off of benefits mixed with potential disbenefits.
Effects of Moral Evil
But potentially deadly viruses, like other natural disasters, can also be greatly exacerbated by the moral evil of bad human decisions and actions. For example, human beings can cause or contribute to pandemics by irresponsible actions like the following: wet markets (animal meat placed in highly unsanitary conditions), risky or negligent laboratory practices, biological warfare, government unpreparedness, failure to share critical medical technology, etc. Natural evil in the world never seems to stand alone. Moral evil often makes things much worse.
Suffering and Moral Courage
In offering this extremely brief summary of a huge health crisis impacting the entire world, my philosophizing isn’t meant to minimize or distract from the great suffering and death that the coronavirus has caused. People everywhere are collectively experiencing this great trial that is causing various kinds of pain and grief.
Fortunately, we also see many examples of moral courage and selfless sacrifice during this crisis. Many health care professionals and first responders put their lives and potentially the lives of their loved ones on the line by caring for COVID-19 patients. Many other unsung heroes like farmers. truck drivers, and supermarket personnel are doing their part to keep society functioning. In God’s providence, we will get through this natural disaster together.
To summarize, I view the coronavirus pandemic as a type of natural evil that is also exacerbated by moral evil. However, as human beings created in the image of God and who care about others, we can overcome this pandemic with medical and moral wisdom and courage.
Reflections: Your Turn
How do you view the pandemic in terms of the categories of moral and natural evil? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.