During my BA in philosophy at the Universidade de Brasília I had the privilege of studying under the Argentinean philosopher, Julio Cabrera. Through Cabrera I was exposed to Brazilian philosophy and I conducted two research projects under his supervision, one against Heidegger inspired by Badiou and Fichte and another on Kant but which wanted to ultimately show that Badiou’s understanding of a truth process could be applied to post-kantian philosophy. (I was very much into Alain Badiou during my BA, though nowadays I have little patience for him). I am looking forward to including a recent book of Cabrera’s, Mal-Estar e Moralidade (UnB, 2018) (there is a shorter version in English: Discomfort and Moral Impediment, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019) in a course I am developing on Introduction to the Philosophy of Evil. I am particularly keen because I believe that Cabrera’s book provides a thought provoking challenge to the claim that evil exists.
Cabrera’s challenge to the problem of evil presupposes his account of the structure of human existence, what he calls “the terminality of being” (terminalidade do ser), which includes three moments or aspects (a) we possess a waning existence, ever ceasing-to-be, with the ever imminent possibility of death; (b) in this waning existence we are subject to three kinds of friction: physical pain, dejection (from simple discouragement to boredom to suicidal depression), and “moral impediment” (our own and others, see below) and (c) the need to give ourselves value in order not to succumb to (a) and (b), often in the grueling, unrewarding form of “labor” and “making a living”.
We can see this structure in babies, who already feel pain, boredom and are self-centered from their birth. Cabrera further highlights the terminal character of our being by going through our being’s propensity towards illness, which is subject to even before its development from genetic traits inherited from the parents, onto difficulties in gestation and then a slew of diseases and conditions that occur at every phase of life. As he argues, sickness is not something that “happens” to a “normally healthy” organism, rather our very being is sick and punctual ailments merely bring out this structure.
And within this structure of constant being worn out by being, everything good and beautiful, every value we manage to acquire or construct is eaten up by the corrosive passage of time. We are faced constantly with our “structural death”, the constant dying away of our lives that we struggle against, as opposed to our “punctual death”, the momentary event that will eventually bring our living death to a close. (Contra Lucretius, we are constantly suffering through our death). What is the point of Plotinus having four times “achieved union with Unity”, if he died covered in sores? Every “transcendent experience” must eventually be brought back down and consumed by time’s onward flow, which is no neutral passage, but the constant wearing away by pain, dejection and moral failure (our own and of those around us). To the claim that human existence must itself have value if it is the creator of works of great value, Cabrera denies that a cause must be superior to its effect. Besides, he points out, we are not only capable of sublime values, but perfectly monstrous ones as well.
Against the traditional view that sees evil and suffering as blemishes on a basically good being, Cabrera claims that it is the good that is always reactive, insurgent, running against the structure of being; immorality is commonplace, ethical behavior is rare. Faced by the basic lack of value of our dissipating lives we react by an immense effort of giving ourselves value, wherein we typically overcompensate, overvaluing ourselves and trampling over others in the process, clinging on to mutual recognition only to set ourselves up for the inevitable mutual disappointment.
As a result of our need for positive self-valuation, Cabrera formulates his thesis of “moral impediment”: at any given moment (though not necessarily by each act) we are failing to be moral with regard to some who deserve our moral consideration. Given the fact that we are struggling to constitute our own value always in narrow, crowded spaces within holistic networks of human actions, our actions always inevitably end up harming or being inconsiderate towards others somewhere down the network. This impediment to morality however is not to be located within human beings but rather in their discomfort, in their structural lack of fit to the world. As a result of our “mal-estar-no-mundo”* even those who we consider highly ethical participate in harming others. Interestingly, Cabrera gives as an example Mother Teresa, whose “radical anti-abortion position, for instance, may have harmed thousands of human beings in the whole world, especially given her being a public person and a very influential one at that.” What is interesting about the quoted example is that Cabrera himself argues that abortion is immoral. Mother Teresa here figures as an example of the inescapability of harm even when taking a moral stance, perhaps insofar as many cases of unwanted pregnancy are tragic situations or perhaps because of the tendency of morality to become an instrument of domination, a feature Cabrera underlines.
Against this background, Cabrera’s challenge to the claim that “evil exists” is plain. To speak like this is to speak of evil (in the three senses of pain, despondency and moral wrongdoing) as somehow coming to being from without, as if one were acquainted with a primarily “good” world, which then one is surprised to see tainted by the fact that “evil exists”. There is for Cabrera no contrastive existence that would be “good” and “welcoming”. We start to speak of “evil” and its “existence”, only after we have sufficiently covered over the basic lack of value of being itself, an occultation we are continually engaged in for various reasons, not least of which is to shore up the self-esteem that we need to continue “this straining and heaving project of making oneself valuable.”
I think this is a particularly valuable challenge to the problem of evil because despite himself, Cabrera actually fleshes out through his arguments and his acute phenomenological descriptions the best description I know of the pervasiveness of evil’s existence and of what we mean when we claim that we are in a “fallen” world or in a “vale of tears”. I have always appreciated this value of Cabrera’s work ever since I read many years ago a phenomenological analysis he wrote of a party, if memory serves me right and I am now to find his views argued in such a thorough and clear way in this ethico-ontological Summa.
Length, time and the desire to leave something for my course means that I won’t be able to lay out fully here how I would reply to this challenge in order to show that the problem of evil is still defensible as a problem and can even incorporate Cabrera’s observations. But I will make two points. The first, I believe that Cabrera’s account of the structure of human life needs to be complemented: what he describes is true and truly structural, but it does not seem to capture everything that is morally relevant in human existence. In particular, it leaves out the fact that a given human life has a meaning, purpose, existence. Maybe Cabrera simply rejects teleology, at any rate he sees any goal that we might have as not being part of the structure of our life, but a meaning generated within our life-death and subject to its withering action. In any case, I take this omission to be connected to what one might call his “individualism”, were that not to give the impression that Cabrera values positively individual existence. By this I mean that he conceives of each human life as terribly alone and solitary, separated by an abyss from each other, an abyss that is constantly traversed only in misunderstandings and violations. Against this, and inspired by Othmar Spann’s account of twinning (Gezweiung), I would hold rather that we humans are from the beginning of our development entwined with others in wholes, wherein we have a specific task or function. The projects of others do not only overrun us, they constitute us, we gain value by participating in an encompassing value, and thus we are always constitutively imbued with function, meaning and ultimately, vocation. There is thus something good in being against which one can indeed see evil as a blemish. But this is a development for another post, where I might also engage with Cabrera’s NAti-natalism.
*(being-unwell-in-the-world, word-for-word, but “mal-estar” is also just “discomfort”, and “estar” is the Portuguese stative verb contrasted with “ser”, both of which correspond to “being” in English, so this is also a “poor” “being-in-the-world” – one gets a certain delight of explaining Portuguese terms when one has seen so many footnotes on German and Greek ““untranslatables””)
Header image credit: Claudine Bouzonnet-Stella, The Games and Pleasures of Childhood, 1657