I watched Jordan Peterson's video about tragedy vs evil. It's been some time since but I thought about it a lot and now come to some questions that confuse me tremendously. I have the idea that tragedy exists because evil and good exist. Because for example (1): Someone creates a virus to kill his friend. The virus spreads to the world, the world experiences tragedy. The friend experiences evil, and the "someone" is the one creating the evil. This would mean evil is used to create tragedy.

But on the other hand (2): Someone gets cancer (which as far as I know is not created by humans on purpose) and thus experiences tragedy. Meaning there was no evil involved in this.

If both actually are true (which I'm confused about) then wouldn't that mean tragedy would exist if evil did not?

Do I have the definitions of tragedy and evil messed up? Or are all diseases existing because of something evil (making both of above statements a cause of evil)?

I believe the question "Would tragedy exist if there was no evil but only good?" with an explanation would solve the confusion for me.


7 Answers 7


Note first that I haven't yet watched this video. I'm not a fan of Jordan (who I view as more pundit than philosopher), but I'll suffer through it today (how tragic!) and may revise my post later. On first blush, however...

In ancient Greek aesthetics, tragedy was intimately associated with hubris: defiance of the gods. More generally, the difference between tragedy and drama is a kind of obsessive overreach: the tragic character challenges his overarching fate — generally in a manner consonant with virtue — and is ultimately destroyed.

Note that this has nothing to do with evil. The Greek concept of 'virtue' does not align perfectly with the modern Abrahamic concept of 'good'; it's more closely associated with perfection of form. We can see this tension on Shakespearean tragedy. In Othello, for instance, both Othello and Iago are virtuous characters — both show their own perfections of form — but Iago's virtue has been corrupted by his jealousy and resentment of Othello, a jealousy that eventually corrupts Othello in turn.

It helps to remember that the concept of 'evil' is an ascription or attribution that we humans make, not an objective feature of the world. Disease isn't intrinsically evil. But human beings can make disease into nemesis — something that forcefully opposes them — and any nemesis can easily be ascribed as evil. Disease only becomes tragic when people commit themselves to defeating it, and find their spirit or will is broken in defeat.

Having finished the video, I don't think I need to revise my answer. Peterson is taking a different angle on things: he asserts tragedy as a condition of human life, not as a character or quality of it (which I disagree with), and the whole speech reads as biblical exegesis (which I enjoy, mind you) more than proper philosophy, but... It's well worth the 50 minutes. Somebody show it to Marjorie Taylor Greene, please.

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    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 15:44
  • In Aristotle's Poetics, he describes tragedy as driven by a tragic/fatal/heroic flaw or en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamartia with defying the gods only as symptom of, for example, bad judgement, or hubris. I think this fits better with a psychological/metaphorical interpretation of the gods
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Nov 3, 2022 at 10:32

Ultimately this question might come down to little more than semantics (which is often a problem when it comes to anything related to Peterson). So I'll just leave this disclaimer here and go with the definitions I know, that seems to be held by most people.

"Evil" is a moral judgement of a moral agent's actions (which depends on the intent behind that).

"Tragedy" is an event causing great suffering, destruction and/or distress.

Disease and natural disasters would classify as tragedies and can exist without the actions of any moral agent. Therefore tragedy can exist without evil.


That's it. Not much more to say.

This comes from a naturalistic worldview, which holds that there are no supernatural moral agents which created or influences natural processes (due to insufficient evidence to warrant belief in the supernatural). From that, the conclusion that tragedies can exist without evil almost immediately and trivially follows.

* One could perhaps argue that events can only be tragedies if there are conscious beings to experience and be affected by it, and conscious beings are moral agents, who thus have the capacity to be evil. Thus one might say consciousness gives rise to the existence of both evil and tragedies, and one cannot exist without the other. There are also possible rebuttals to this, but this would largely focus around the semantics of how one defines a tragedy. And one might also disagree that evil is a necessary result of consciousness. This isn't an endorsement of that position, merely an acknowledgement of it.

Note: in religious worldviews, it's common to define "evil" in terms of supernatural forces and as something which objectively exists, rather than a subjective judgement, and may even include things like disease as products of evil (e.g. man sinned, and therefore disease exists). This would presumably then mean the existence of tragedy is dependent on the existence of evil.

But this would only make sense if you believe that supernatural forces exist (which I do not).

In the modern day, most people would likely define slavery as evil, but up to less than 2 centuries ago, people engaged in it openly without moral hangups: our definition of evil changes over time (which doesn't mean objective evil doesn't exist, but it may mean that we don't have a good reason to believe it exists).

  • 2
    If Peterson rebuts anything I've said above in his video, feel free to point that out. I didn't watch the video, don't intend to and wouldn't consider it a reasonable expectation to watch a 42 minute video (or any video really, unless strictly necessary) to be able to get the required context for a question on a text-based Q&A.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 21:44
  • Honestly, when I asked the question, I thought there was one definition of evil and good. Its been some time that I watched the video too but I watched it twice and the definition Jordan gives are about equal to mine and the ones I get when googling it. I assumed their was no need to explain evil and good. Also didn't want to create question with too much text. Usually doesn't get answers because its "too broad"... My 2 examples I gave do somewhat explain my definitions of evil though.
    – Allart
    Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 7:01
  • Your last paragraph I do not see as usefull though. Only the slave holders thought it was normal to have slaves (although I dont belive that everyone would have thought that), im pritty sure the slaves didn't think it was morally good. You don't include them in the word "people". The paragraph doesn't prove good or evil is relative (and I know you don't claim that). Just that more powerfull people abused their power.
    – Allart
    Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 7:12
  • 1
    @Allart Most of humanity (or at least the western democratic world) has a common colloquial definition of "evil", as in we'd agree that roughly the same set of actions are "evil". But once one asks what causes evil (which highly relates to what can exist with or without evil), a common Christian answer would be "the devil", while a common atheist answer might be that "evil" is a concept humans made up to describe intent we find undesirable (e.g. wanting to cause others harm), and such intent exists because of evolution, our environment and/or the choices we made in the past.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 7:36
  • 2
    @Allart I don't believe that slave owners of the past, for the most part, believed that they were "abusing their power", and I imagine many of them considered themselves to be moral and not "evil". And slave ownership was also common enough that I don't think one can reasonably say this was just the few "bad people" of society who had flawed moral compasses (like we may consider murderers in the modern day). Slaves of the past may (or may not) have considered slave ownership to be immoral, but the point stands that there were, and still are, people with vastly different definitions of "evil".
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 7:46

The world can be a dangerous and harsh place. While much of the time is it not dangerous, and one can often live for extended periods without tragedy, the world will shatter that illusion suddenly and catastrophically. That bad things happen to undeserving people, is tragedy.

The Greek Tragedies focused in on one peculiarity of our world, that our moral systems do not have a single reference, but instead have multiple "virtues" or "rights", hence following moral guidelines can lead to violating other moral principles. This is a particularly frustrating aspect of tragedy for us -- "good" actions can lead to harm/disaster.

We humans, as moral actors, also harm each other. Cruelty, ill-wishing, even uncaring harm -- these are evil. Some of the tragedy in the world is caused by evil.

The "Problem of Evil" is an application of moral responsibility to the creator of our dangerous/tragic universe. If our universe is created, then any creator must have made a moral choice to structure it such that it causes tragedies on a massive scale. This, per the definition of evil above by a moral actor, is at a minimum "uncaring harm", hence any creator must have been doing evil in the creation process. Theist religions generally assert their deities are absolutely good, "omnibenevolent", which is a character trait that would lead to a universe which does NOT harm us. The "Problem of Evil" then is an empirical observation that refutes claims of an omnibenevolent creator.

If the structure of our universe is the act of an agent, and that agent were "good" then yes, there would be no tragedy. If our universe has no creator, and is just a non-agent natural product, then there is no "Problem of Evil", and tragedy is just intrinsic to the universe, which we must learn to live with as best we can.

  • "Evil then is an empirical observation that refutes claims of an omnibenevolent creator. If the structure of our universe is the act of an agent, and that agent were 'good' then yes, there would be no tragedy." Clearly theists do not agree, or there would be no theodicies. Generally transcendent aims, are thought to justify the existence of evil for theists - development of free minds as a moral good & evil as direct or indirect consequences of choices etc
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 16:56
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    @CriglCragl -- for any question, one can always come up with rationalizations to reject falsification testing. That theodicies come up with such justifications is undeniable. That they are inadequate, is why the "Problem of Evil" is still a "Problem", rather than a "solved pseudo-problem". "Free will justifications", are easily refuted by pointing out that a) most tragedy is not due to free will, b) we have far less free will than we should if free will is such an absolute good, and c) God and humans in heaven have free will, yet don't do evil. Note I am a theist, just not a monotheist.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 20:10
  • Whether there are satisfying answers to the Problem of Evil is only a matter of taste. Earthquakes are tragic, but in a larger perspective Earth's molten core gave the radiation shielding that allowed life to emerge. Cancer is the failure of a benefit, the machinery that let's us live so long (most animals don't live long enough to risk cancer). I am not a theist. I just don't like people projecting their taste onto the world so as to call a big fraction of the world with carefully thought through ideas 'refuted'. Clearly many don't think so, & can argue their case.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 9:22
  • You can't ignore issues around defining evil here, any more than defining free will in that (related) topic. Plenty call it a solved pseudoproblem Eg 'Wittgenstein and the Pseudo-Problem of Evil' academia.edu/51242937/… 'Pseudo-Dionysius and the Non-Existence of Evil' microcosmology.wordpress.com/2019/06/25/… Theodicy is above all about situating ourselves in relation to disagreeable experience, & for monotheists that will give insight into the character of the deity.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 9:31
  • @CriglCragl -- as I noted, there are multitudes of rationalizations for monotheism relative to the POE. Citing the existence of two more (neither of which make the Free Will defense, which was your last point), does not make these VALID arguments -- people hold by and live by blatant rationalizations all the time. As a generality, POE rationalizations argue either that the world does not have evil in it, or that God is not Good per our understanding of Good, or both. The Free Will defense argues the first, that the would could not have been better for us to have Free Will (continue) ...
    – Dcleve
    Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 15:31

What does 'only good' mean? Say a sporting story, someone is very good, works very hard, but in the end loses in their last chance at a contest, and we say 'What a tragedy'. But, someone had to win, so others had to lose, that's how we set up contests. Could a perfectly good God make it so everyone wins? And winning still mean anything..? This is in the realm of Omnipotence Paradoxes.

Evil is a problematic word, because it carries so much baggage it lends itself to talking at cross-purposes unless a discussion-specific definition has been agreed. Kant had the idea of Radical Evil, something like being controlled by a temporary local concern that separates someone from following universal laws which best support overall wellbeing. But even he is criticised for shifting his terms over time, because he saw evil as both an innate inclination, and as something we are judgeable for having done. There are so many ways to define evil, have a look at the list here: Does philosophy have a dark side?

Nietzsche understood tragedy as part of the antidote to nihilism, the loss of personal meaning and social cohesion from an old meaning-cosmology or metanarrative no longer working but a new one not yet having arrived, or as foundational to a dynamic meaning-cosmology.

"Around the hero everything becomes a tragedy; around the demigod everything becomes a satyr-play; and around God everything becomes — what? perhaps a 'world'?" -in The Birth of Tragedy

It is said that only in economically prosperous times of peace, do the most unhappy and tragic stories get made into films, and vice versa in troubled times people seek escapism. Aristotle in his Poetics used the previously medical term for purging poisons 'catharsis', to apply to experiencing vicarious negative emotions in watching a tragedy, and feeling some release from or making peace with those. It is a poor consolation to someone tragically bereaved to say you will find a way to make sense of what happened, and yet to live their best life the bereaved must in fact do that. Tragic stories can help us practice, for the sorrows and disappointments we must face, must risk, in order to live fully.

It is widely noted Hollywood doesn't make films with unhappy endings. The area I think this is of most concern is in remembering war, because it means holding on to the idea there will be some kind of just results, that the 'true patriot' will come out ok. But war isn't like that, it's a Pandora's Box, that whatever good we find at the bottom opening releases unknowable unpredictable unjust evils. It is deeply unwise to only remember it's heroes, and not that above all war is tragic.

"The wheel of Fortune turns; I sink, debased;

another is raised up; lifted too high,

a king sits in his turn, him beware of ruin!

Beneath the axle we read: Queen Hecuba."

-from the medieval poem Fortune Plango Vulnera, which was set to music by Carl Orff in his Carmina Burana

Hecuba was queen of Troy, who had 19 children all of whom she saw die before her, and saw the city she had been queen of annihilated.

The trade-offs that not everyone can get what they want, and unforeseen unwanted consequences of getting or doing what we want, mean the possibility of tragedy is then part of living a meaningful life - taking risks for rewards, and understanding what it is to choose wisely.

In Buddhist thought, suffering arises from the chain of dependent origination, which begins with ignorance, forgetting the true nature of things and so grasping for what cannot be held. In the rebirth picture, there will always be justice and balance in time, and tragedy would be an experience we can use to help return to a proper understanding, ie of the three marks of existence. I mention this because it's a picture where all evil and tragedy can be redeemed, by using them as pointers back towards our original state of Bliss, in Awakening. So, through reframing the circle can be squared, in some sense.


Evil vs tragedy

I argue that ...

evil is where good does not exist or occur, either by intentionally treating someone badly or through indifference (failing to act where good can be done) whereas ...

tragedy is more reflective upon outcomes, an exploration of the unhappy consequences of evil, especially where it might have been avoided. Thus, Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy but isn't evil per se.

I think that it's important never to confuse evil with making the attempt to do good and failing: mistakes are healthy when learnt from.


In short I believe tragedy can exist without evil. This is because I think there is a clear difference between tragedy and evil.

I believe moral evil is the only evil that exists. Moral evil is pain/harm caused by the intentional action or inaction of an agent, such as a person, to another agent. This is specifically because a person is capable of discerning right from wrong.

Tragedy I belive is an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress. For example earthquakes (natural evil some people call it) and diseases. A car accident could also be tragic, as long as it is not done on purpose in some way.

In these definitions, tragedy and evil are opposites of each other, essentially. When a human experiences pain, it is tragedy when it is not inflicted on purpose. But it is evil when it is purposely inflicted.

This means that if you remove evil, a human will only be able to choose between good options (in case it still has free will) and so will be unable to do any moral evil. Earthquakes and other natural disasters or diseases will still exist.

I believe this is also true from a theological perspective. If God would remove tragedy (seen as evil by most people), it would mean that earth would cease to exist, or at least not much would be left of it. This is because removing earthquakes means tectonic plates wont exist either. Wich means mountains can't exist. Remove tornado's and storms, and water and wind would cease to exist. Remove illness, biology would cease to exist. In the end, I believe, you would end up with a world where humans could physicly not survive at all. Now ofcourse God could probably make some magical place where all physical things are under very different laws (probably a static world) making things still be able to work out, but I think such a world is way less valueable then the current one we have. So this is why I think it is not evil (from God's perspective) that natural disasters exist. Without it, we can't physicly exist and the alternative seems, to me, way less valueable/about impossible to live in (I think heaven is the best alternative, but starting in heaven and being there forever, with nothing to imagine from earth or a relative (since they didn't exist) seems useless to me. You are then equal to all other souls, if there even is any).

If God does not exist, then natural evil can never be seen as evil because nothing there is done on purpose. Which I think is a necessity for evil to exist.

  • "Moral evil is any morally negative event" negative according to what moral standard ?
    – armand
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 1:25
  • @armand I mainly agree with this answer. It's negative according to the moral standards of individuals. Though I think I should add/change it to: that specificly moral evil means that it is an action that will harm another human being. Im not sure how exactly to correctly write the definition. Good question btw.
    – Allart
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 7:20

The term tragedy is not very well defined; let's assume here a meaning roughly in the sense of its Wikipedia entry: "An event of great loss, usually of human life" with certain characteristics that distinguish it from ordinary loss of life. As a simple example, the natural death of a very old person may be lamentable but is usually not considered tragic as such. It may become tragic if the death prevented them from finishing an extraordinary piece of art or from performing some other function in which they are irreplaceable.

We would also consider the death of young people tragic, especially if the events leading to their deaths were arbitrary and perhaps particularly unlucky.

Tragic events in this sense, e.g. accidents and natural disasters, can obviously occur without any evil. In fact, such events would probably be considered particularly tragic in a world that lacks evil because it would be the only reason for suffering. Everybody has the best intentions, the lovely children have a splendid and beautiful life before them, and whack! disaster strikes.

Contrast this with a world in which evil reigns: Children are not lovely but dirty and ugly, must steal for a living and may not survive into adulthood at all. People generally die all the time anyway, from crime, hunger, disease and yes, natural disaster (shrug). Doesn't stand out, does it?

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