According to the interview with Marilyn McCord Adams, the key to understanding evil is its classification according to the magnitude of its impact on the life of an individual. Central to Adams’ argument is the existence of what she categorizes as “horrendous evil”—an event or phenomenon that is so overwhelming that it threatens to ruin the significance of life for the victim. One of the features of this type of evil is the concept of mutual participation, where both the victim and the perpetrator take part in committing the act of evil. However, it is not clear if this is either a necessary or a sole condition since some of the later examples by Adams (the victims of Cambodian warfare) do not explicitly display involvement in the commitment of the act. Since overcoming the adverse effects of such a phenomenon is beyond the capacity of human beings, the presence of horrendous evil signifies the inconsistency of optimism as a viable, sustainable posture in life and demands the presence of a supernatural and ultimately benevolent being to assist people in dealing with it. In other words, the existence of God is a necessary condition of optimistic posture given the presence of horrendous evil.
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Strengths and Weaknesses
The strongest point of the argument by Marilyn McCord Adams is the reliance on a rational approach and the necessity to challenge the preconceived notion of optimism. Simply put, the mere acceptance of optimism without acknowledging the presence of evil in the world (some of which, according to Adams, is unbearable by humans) places it in the domain of beliefs and prejudices. Therefore, both optimism and malevolence should be measured and compared to reach a conclusion regarding the real value of existence. However, such an approach is difficult to execute for several reasons. First, the criterion of life-changing experience is highly subjective: an event that can possibly deprive the life of one person of meaning can be deemed less dramatic by another.
In addition, the effects of desperation and powerlessness are known to be temporary, which certainly can be explained by supernatural intervention but is equally explainable by natural and thoroughly studied processes that require fewer new assumptions and therefore are more reasonable. A notable example of such an approach is Adams’ countering of the argument regarding the optimism of atheistic Holocaust survivors who remained non-believers. According to her, their resilience can be explained by the unarticulated awareness of the supernatural power that is responsible for reintroducing meaning into their existence. In this way, her argument is made impossible to disprove and is, therefore, immune to alternative suggestions. This clearly steers away from the appeal to rationality beyond the assumption of God as a necessary condition stated earlier.
Next, Adams explicitly denounces the factor of human progress as a reason to accept optimism without introducing the supernatural component. Specifically, the progress made in the field of medicine and leading to the eradication of several life-threatening diseases is dismissed as inferior to the supposed lack of progress on the capacity for self-governance and level of corruption. However, it can be argued that the former has a much better chance of qualifying as horrendous evil. As a result, the argument does not offer consistent criteria for defining evil; instead, it is used to selectively include the concepts that align with the preferred posture and reject those that do not. In other words, it is prone to confirmation bias. Finally, the notion of optimism used by Adams seems to have a prerequisite for the presence of a supernatural being; that is, optimism necessitates an external force that is responsible for steering the human decisions and shaping the understanding of life’s meaning. This prerequisite makes it easier for the author to select the facts that confirm her suggestion but further undermines the possibility of rationalization and puts the whole argument in the domain of religion.
After considering the strengths and weaknesses of Dr. Adams’ argument, we can see that it does not give an adequate response to the problem of evil. When presented with the problem directly, she states that the fact of the presence of evil in the world cannot be explained by humans due to the differences between them and the supernatural, which is basically a restatement of the phrase “God works in mysterious ways.” Therefore, she uses a concept of evil as a means of confirming the preferred explanation for the human capacity to find meaning in life rather than addressing it as a separate concept.