Camus and the problem of evil

Albert Camus
Albert Camus


Depending on who you ask the existence of evil can either be a real physical truth or an abstract idea that has no actual basis in the rest of the world as we fit into it. For Camus the concept of evil and the problems that this idea bring about are very real and not merely theoretical ideas and bases. To see what exactly Camus believes about the problem of evil it is important to step back and take a look at how he first defines evil, then to go about understanding his belief on the subject.

Defining Evil

Camus' beliefs of what exactly constitutes evil is a response to both nihilism that "nothing is true: all is permitted," and quietism or indifference to the rest of the outside world. He feels that both of these beliefs create problems in defining existence and fail to address the absurd of the world. Though most of his beliefs regarding evil center around the concepts of murder and rebellion due to their direct relation to evil his definition of evil goes beyond just these concepts. According to Camus evil is anything that prevents solidarity between people. Solidarity as described by Camus is what occurs when a person recognizes the rights or values of another person during the act of rebelling therefore identifying themselves with the rest of humanity as possessing certain rights. Evil itself can be divided into essentially two separate forms. These forms of evil are either natural or human evil depending on what is exactly preventing solidarity. Natural evil consist of events like hurricanes, plagues, and tornadoes which people have no control over but that still separate them both physically and mentally from one another do either to death or restrictions that are created like destroyed roads and bridges physically cutting people off from one another. Human evil on the other hand is any action that people undertake that creates this separation between others' ability to recognize the rights of others to their fullest. These evils are created by people and include murder, slavery, imprisonment, exile and less drastic actions like lying and being willfully ignorant of the world. All of these actions prevent people from connecting to one another and establishing relations with others. There also exists the combination of the two different evils together. An instance of this is in The Plague where people are separated from those that are sick in order to prevent the spread of the disease but also because some people are dying and therefore are separated from one another. The most absolute and powerful form of evil therefore according to Camus’ definition that he provides is death since it forever separates people from one another and it is totally final. This of course is due to the fact that he does not believe in an afterlife so once a person is dead they are gone forever. Murder then is the worst action possible because it is the act of causing death permanently destroying solidarity. Camus’ definition of evil all ties back into how he views people’s relation to the world. He believes that people only come to a realization or awareness of the world when they rebel and join with others in solidarity demanding respect and certain rights. If people do not achieve this awareness there cannot be a way for them to relate to one another and create solidarity therefore there cannot be evil. But since people do rebel and demand these rights for all of humanity rather than just themselves they then create evil when something prevents everyone from achieving rights and having solidarity with the rest of mankind.
Nihilism in action
Nihilism in action

The Problem of Evil

The definition that Camus uses to describe evil helps to show the problem. This is because his definition severely limits the way that evil is seen. Unlike other definitions of evil his relies on action being taken and does not allow for evil to be its own entity that is separate from action and makes some things inherently evil like in Christianity with the devil. This means that whenever solidarity is threatened between people evil exist. The problem of evil is that anything that jeopardizes solidarity is supposed to be considered evil. This means that any form of violence is in fact evil if it jeopardizes the solidarity that exist between others and makes the act of rebelling or standing up for individual rights and the rights of others as a form of evil. Even nonviolent rebellions can be considered evil by this definition if the nonviolent action creates separation between individuals and is not concerned with values that increase life. Unfortunately this creates the problem with evil that almost always requires people to act in evil ways. One example of this is murder which in his mind something that no individual is innocent of and is perhaps one of the greatest evils up there with death. He believes that we either actively committing murder or allowing it to occur and therefore we are guilty of it in one form or another. This is because the process of rebellion is responsible for both recognizing solidarity and for breaking that very same unity between separate individuals preventing solidarity.

Rebellion and Evil

Rebellion according to Camus occurs when an individual comes to the awareness that there exist some sort of universal truth or right that all people must have. By recognizing that everyone has this truth the individual that has achieved awareness of the world around them and they create solidarity between themselves and the rest of humanity who must also possess this right. But the action of rebelling in order to achieve these rights means that the individual has made a value judgment determining that the value of the right that they have become aware of is so important that they would risk everything in order to achieve it. They create an absolute determinant where they either achieve their goal getting "all" or they fail completely not getting the goal or right "nothing". The "all or nothing" absolute created by the rebel leaves no room for a middle ground and must also create division between individuals. Without the division there cannot be an "all" or the unifying right that creates solidarity. But by creating the division an evil action occurs because it is preventing solidarity. The rebel also has to recognize the inherent problem that is created by their own action. They must recognize that others exist and that they all have the same right. But they also must come to the conclusion that they have to deny others their right in order to achieve it. Camus argues that the rebel must make it necessary not to rebel for themselves but for the rest of humanity. This includes the person or persons that they are separating from the rest of humanity because without this they have not achieved true awareness of the world. According to Camus this means that while the action might be evil the ultimate goal of the action, to bring solidarity to everyone else, makes this rebellion no longer an evil action and is partially how he condones political violence in The Rebel(22). Of course there is another problem with this view which creates the idea that the ends justify the means and can make almost any evil action ultimately good if the goal is to achieve solidarity. His counter to this argument is by saying that if the rebel is truly rebelling for others they will not be able to compromise those rights and values during their rebellion thus preventing gross violation of the solidarity between people.

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Just Assassins. In Caligula and Three Other Plays, trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.

Fletcher, John. "The Development of Albert Camus's Concern for Social and Political Justice: 'Justice pour un juste'." Journal of European Studies 39.4 (2009): 514+. Academic OneFile. Web. 7 Dec. 2010.

Lowe, Peter. "Resistance and rebuilding: the wartime writings of George Orwell and Albert Camus." English Studies 90.3 (2009): 305-327. Academic OneFile. Web. 6 Dec. 2010.

"Rebel, The." Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1995. Academic OneFile. Web. 5 Dec. 2010.