Lectures and discussions examine good and evil

Continuing a tradition stretching back 18 years, the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture held its annual Fall Conference from November 9 to 11 at McKenna Hall. The title of the conference was “Through Every Human Heart”—alluding to a quotation from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describing the “line dividing good and evil” within each person.

As usual, the conference hosted several keynote speakers and lecturers from a wide variety of institutions. The opening night keynote was delivered by Notre Dame’s Gary Anderson, and was entitled “Is the God of the Old Testament Evil?”

Anderson analyzed the question from many different standpoints—noting the necessity of taking other factors into account when reading accounts, suggesting “somewhat daringly that even judgment can be merciful” (and going on to note, using examples from the popular series Breaking Bad, that living consequence-free for your actions is no true freedom at all), and so on. Highlighting God’s fidelity to his people, he says that the question can be answered “with a resounding no.”

An afternoon lecture the next day featured Notre Dame professor emeritus, and many-time speaker at the Conference, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. The 88-year-old focused his lecture on the distinction made in language between “bad” and “evil.” MacIntyre noted that often the distinction is hard to draw—in much philosophy, for example, Latin is used, which does not distinguish between the two. And figuring out whether something is bad in respect of something rather than categorically bad, or bad regarding the human person, is tricky. MacIntyre thus noted the way that authors like Shakespeare skillfully portray the human side of philosophical ethics, concluding that “in moral matters, the mind is mindless without the imagination.”

On the more disputatious side of the conference, noted Thomistic philosopher Edward Feser, along with his co-author Joseph Bessette, visited to discuss their views on the death penalty, previously expounded upon in a book they published earlier this year. Feser and Bessette argued, mainly from the standpoint of justice and natural law, in favor of the usage of the death penalty. They also noted that a non-negligible number of the saints themselves were also in favor of its usage. Arguing against this position were Gerard Bradley and John O’Callaghan, both of Notre Dame, who critiqued such arguments from a variety of perspectives. O’Callaghan noted that in every case that justice is to be administered, mercy should also be taken into account, for it is thus with God: even in Hell “the damned are not punished as much as they deserve.”  

The conference provided a wide selection of other presentations as well (many of which can be found online at the Center for Ethics and Culture website). Joseph Loomis, a visiting student from St. John’s College, described the conference as “an illuminating experience. It was my first time being in a rigorously academic Christian environment, but one which also brought like-minded students and scholars together for genuine fellowship.”

The next Fall Conference will be held November 1-3, 2018.