Jeff LaSala is one of the more interesting Tolkien fans writing blogs about the guy.
He’s got a point in here I’ve seen many times before, often stated not just as an opinion but as uncontestable fact.
“There is no such thing as evil. What people identify as evil is only the absence of good.” Grep for ‘absence’ and you’ll find it a little over halfway down.
Now Jeff doesn’t claim to espouse this, merely relating Shippley’s argument. I’ve heard this innumerable times, and read it in Tolkien’s notes and letters. I also disagree. I think evil is a thing. I’m quoting those articles because they’re the onramp to a fairly well travelled bit of thought, but having gotten up to speed and merged, here’s the scenery.
First, what exactly are orcs? Regardless of their origins (see Jeff’s recap. Again, top notch), they exist and they’re bad. In Middle Earth, orcs exist. They’re all over the place. And they’re bad. No good orc deed is disclosed, save possibly the Uruk Hai giving Pippin and Merry medicine in the run to Isengard. That’s under questionable auspices. But in every other circumstance, they are portrayed as bad. And they exist.
Sauron? Exists, is bad.
Melkor? Exists or existed, is/was bad.
So there are these entities floating around that are evil. They do things, and they’re not the forces of good inwardly collapsing. They may be dehumanized metaphorical people, translated from real world to fiction, but in the fiction they’re real.
People doing evil things exist in the real world too.
A difference is that in fiction, certain creatures exist in evil as actions to harm others (Into his ring he poured his malice and his will to dominate others), while in the real world, most (maybe all) evil exists as ignoring others. The guy who shoves people out of the way to get through a line isn’t thinking he wants to push other people back. He’s thinking he wants to get himself ahead. And that’s why he’ll defend himself. “I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone! I just wanted to get ahead!” But of course that does hurt someone, and that’s why what he did was evil.
CS Lewis gets into this in his apology for God by talking about how people defend their actions. I need to read that again before quoting, because I want to be sure I get it right. Inklings, et al.
But that tangent aside, there are orcs, and they are bad. Is that not enough for the positive existence of evil, at least in fiction?
I suppose the argument here is that they do exist, but they’re not bad. They’re just not good.
This strikes me as an absurd bit of semantics. SOMETHING exists. That SOMETHING has to be something, has to be made of something, has to have attributes. That SOMETHING cannot merely not be something else, because then the not-something-else doesn’t describe what the SOMETHING is.
Imagine you’re in Middle Earth. I point at an orc.
“What is that?” I say.
You understand I am talking about the orc.
“An orc,” you reply.
“Does it exist?”
“Is it evil?”
“No, it’s not good,” you counter argue.
“But that’s what it’s not. If it’s not good, but it is something, what is it? Must it not be positive evil? If it positively is something, and that something isn’t good, must that thing be positively evil than? Active evil? Evil not in the absence of something else, but evil as a thing itself?”
Then we start arguing about perverted elves or humans diminished, the powers of Melkor before he was Morgoth, and all that jazz. That entire discussion is a red herring.
“What is that?” I repeat, pointing at the orc.
The crux of the absence-of-good argument is that not-something can do stuff. That’s nonsense.