Philosophy Workshop: The Philosophy of Evil (October 2020)

The word “evil” gets quite the workout.  Everything has been called “evil” in various times and circumstances — from callous and sinister human actions, to  disease and natural disasters, to the reality of simple ugliness.

But (conspiracy theories aside), do genocide, the coronavirus, raging wildfires, and the latest “eye-sore” of an architectural project (for example) really have anything in common with each other?

Socrates famously asserted that no one ever chooses evil insofar as it seems evil to him or her.  Is Socrates right about this, or could purely evil villains, ripped from the pages of your favorite comic book or fantasy novel, actually exist in the real world?

Is there even an objective fact of the matter, about which things are good and evil?  Or is calling someone “evil” simply another way of saying “I hate you”?  Or a way to justify treating our enemies in the worst ways imaginable, just because “they deserve it”?

In other words, discussions of evil get messy and confusing.  Remarkably quickly

In this 21/2 hour ZOOM philosophy workshop led by philosopher David Nowakowski, we investigated the philosophy of evil — both at the level of abstract concepts, and at the level of practical, everyday action.

An overview of what sorts of questions we explored is provided below, followed by a workshop video and a list of resources and readings.


Some Questions We Explored

  • What do we mean by “evil”?  Given its incredibly wide range, is evil even a single thing that we can define?  Are all (or even most) of those who lament, fear, or rail against “evil” even talking about the same thing?  As good philosophers, we’ll start by simply getting clear on what it is we’re discussing.
  • Why is evil a problem?  In a very narrow sense, the “problem of evil” is often trotted out as an argument against certain—though by no means all—forms of religion.  We’ll take note of that, but also look more broadly: Why is it that philosophers have struggled to explain or account for the phenomena of evil?  Do different theories about how the world works have an easier (or harder) time making sense of evils?
  • How can we respond effectively to evil, without becoming evil ourselves?  All too often, the persecuted become persecutors in their turn, and the revolutionaries who fought for freedom become even more oppressive than the powers they overthrew.  How can we acknowledge evils in the world around us, without being sucked in or destroyed by them ourselves?


(Workshop Introduction & Session Recordings )


(Workshop Handout & Reading Recommendations)
~ Click on the pdf image to view/download ~

About the Workshop Leader...

David is as a philosopher and educator whose professional work is dedicated to helping people of all ages and backgrounds access, understand, and apply the traditions of ancient philosophy to their own lives.  A lover of philosophy and the great outdoors, David is currently building his own consulting practice and serves as a Philosophical Advisor and Consultant for Merlin CCC & Senior Mentor for scholars in the Merlin Fellowship Program.

David began studying ancient philosophies and classical languages in 2001, and has continued ever since.  A scholar of the philosophical traditions of the ancient Mediterranean (Greece, Rome, and North Africa) and of the Indian subcontinent, reading Sanskrit, Latin, and classical Greek, he earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 2014.  His work has appeared in a variety of scholarly journals, including Philosophy East & WestAsian Philosophy, and the Journal of Indian Philosophy; as well as in presentations to academic audiences at Harvard, Columbia University, the University of Toronto, Yale-NUS College in Singapore, and elsewhere. 

A hermit by nature and by committed choice, he balances contemplative solitude with his active work in teaching, counseling, and the healing arts. We are elated to be collaborating with David on our philosophy in the community activities, fellowships, and other Merlin projects.

Thank You’s

Thank you to Humanities Montana and P.L.A.T.O. (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization) for helping support our philosophy in the community programs and making events like this possible!  This workshop was part of our 2020 “Thinking as a Community” project.

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