Sunday, May 2, 2010

British Petroleum and Theodicy

In the Gulf of Mexico is presently transpiring what could likely turn out to be a grave environmental disaster. An April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig caused oil from the rig's bore hole to begin to spew into the Gulf of Mexico at an alarming rate. The rig was located approximately 60 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River and the pollution resulting from its demise has already covered most of that distance as well as a farther trek northward toward the U. S. Coast (see official map from NOAA).

Particularly heart-wrenching among Southern Baptist reactions are the reflections of Russell Moore, a native of the soon-to-be-afflicted area. Moore uses the occasion to remind us rightly that God has charged us with the management of this earth. Moore also outlines something of the stakes involved, reminding us that we, who are creatures rather than Creator after all, survive by the bounty of this earth that we must manage.

So, I think we can all safely conclude that this disaster is something evil. Is this disaster properly to be characterized as an instance of moral evil or an instance of natural evil? Moral evil, as you may already know, is any evil that we perceive as being the direct result of the immoral action or inaction of a moral agent. Natural evil, on the other hand, is evil for which we do not perceive an argument attributing the evil result to any action or inaction of any moral agent. Those may not be precisely correct definitions, but they should serve our purposes well enough. The crux of the matter really lies in whose fault it is. If it is somebody's fault, then it is moral evil; if it is everybody's fault (Adam's fault), then it is natural evil. Which best describes this calamity, moral evil or natural evil?

Categorizing evil occurrences as moral evil or natural evil is one of those exercises that appears simple at first but quickly grows more complicated than one could easily anticipate. Once you have finished the task, the results may reveal as much about you as they reveal about the events themselves.

For illustration's sake, consider the two most infamous Gulf Coast tragedies of recent years: Hurricane Katrina and now the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Hurricane Katrina was clearly an instance of natural evil, right? Depending upon the ideological axe one wishes to grind, not everyone will quickly concede that point. From one end of the ideological spectrum, people asserted that we were embarking upon an age of larger and more frequent hurricanes because of human environmental misdeeds. Subsequent history, of course, has revealed this assertion to have been nonsense. Another end of the ideological spectrum tended to blame the people living in New Orleans. Who is so foolish as to build a house below sea level in a hurricane zone and then dare to be surprised when it floods? In each of these cases, the effect is to assert that the Hurricane Katrina disaster was actually an instance of moral evil rather than natural evil—that some person or group of people is to blame.

Likewise, with regard to the Deepwater Horizon explosion, all indications are that this is an instance of natural evil. The Deepwater Horizon explosion, at this point, appears to have little moral similarity to the Exxon Valdez spill. As you may recall, Valdez Captain Joseph J. Hazelwood had a serious alcohol problem, had lost his driver's license three times for driving drunk, and had consumed at least "two or three vodkas" the night of the accident (which is, of course, his liberty in Christ to drink vodka while piloting a supertanker full of crude oil). it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Valdez spill was an instance of moral evil.

In contrast, all indications at this point are that the Deepwater Horizon rig was operating with a blowout preventer and with safety equipment and procedures in place to prevent any explosion like this one from taking place. Those procedures and that equipment obviously did not prevent the disaster. If the subsequent investigation reveals that somebody did (or didn't do) something that contributed to this accident, then that will change the game entirely. But apart from such evidence, right now the explanation for the explosion is simply that something failed or went wrong in spite of, and not because of, what British Petroleum did. The company "is taking full responsibility for the spill" and will lose billions of dollars because of what happened April 20, but their taking of responsibility is, at this point at least, a consequence of the accident having happened to them, not a consequence of any specific action that anyone has yet alleged or that they have admitted. This appears to be an instance of natural evil, not moral evil.


Unless you hold the opinion that the existence of the Deepwater Horizon rig was immoral to begin with. Just as some people have alleged that it was immoral for houses to exist in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans at all, some people will approach the present crisis from the presumption that it is immoral for oil drilling platforms to exist in the Gulf of Mexico at all. Such people will, long before the facts emerge (and regardless of what they reveal), forcefully conclude that this is an instance of moral evil.

Moral evil can be found most places if you strain hard enough to find it. Imagine that a school bus stalls on a railroad track in front of a train. Natural evil or moral evil? Well, why do we have grade-level crossings of roads and railroad tracks at all? Just because it would cost more money to build overpasses at every crossing? Are the lives of those school children not worth a few more dollars? Aren't our priorities ultimately to blame?

So, natural evil or moral evil? Most evil events are some combination of the both of them, although most are obviously more one than the other. And somehow we mysteriously assert that we are all morally responsible for the present state of affairs, and that we are living the least evil history that could ever have been possible.


Christiane said...

"From the WSJ at

U.S. regulators don't mandate use of the remote-control device on offshore rigs, and the Deepwater Horizon, hired by oil giant BP PLC, didn't have one. With the remote control, a crew can attempt to trigger an underwater valve that shuts down the well even if the oil rig itself is damaged or evacuated...
Norway has had acoustic triggers on almost every offshore rig since 1993.

The U.S. considered requiring a remote-controlled shut-off mechanism several years ago, but drilling companies questioned its cost and effectiveness, according to the agency overseeing offshore drilling. The agency, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, says it decided the remote device wasn't needed because rigs had other back-up plans to cut off a well."

The 'acoustic triggers' would have cost 500K to install on a rig.
Instead, BP is now spending 6 million a day on clean-up in the Gulf.
I suppose some examination of the debate surrounding 'rights to private profits' versus 'the evils of government regulations' may need to be reconsidered. Sometimes the 'evil' is really just too much greed drowning out common sense.

Rebecca Illingworth said...

Res Ipsa Loquitur :)

bapticus hereticus said...

bapticus hereticus: Moral or natural evil? Would I be premature in advocating for, "first, let's learn the facts?"

r. grannemann said...

In a news clip yesterday I saw president Obama say that British Petroleum is responsible for the accident (not, for example, the U.S. government that let them drill offshore). Is British Petroleum going to be held libel for the entire cost of clean up and lost income from businesses along the coast? If so, BP will go bankrupt. Fallout from the disaster could put a damper on offshore drilling. Are Exxon and the other Big Oils going to risk their solvency on the possibility of one offshore accident?

Bart Barber said...


I believe that your point corresponds roughly to my point about overpasses at railroad crossings. Yes, we can validly conclude that not every possible precaution against this possibility was taken. That's what makes this such a good teaching opportunity about this question, because this is often the case. My son has a baseball game tonight. More extensive (and expensive) safety equipment is available for him than I have purchased for him. Ditto for his bike-riding. Our two automobiles have extensive safety equipment, but there are vehicles available on the market with higher safety ratings and with more safety features.

Each of us faces in our everyday lives the task of deciding how much precaution is enough. If something bad happens, then in hindsight we're likely to conclude that anything less than the ultimate protection was insufficient. And yet, every dollar that I spend protecting against risk A is a dollar that I can no longer spend protecting against risk B. If I know ahead of time that risk A is going to actualize and that risk B is not, then the decision is easy. But these decisions I must make without that knowledge.

To prepare not at all is foolish. I have life insurance, disability insurance, health insurance, and dental insurance. But if I knew for certain that I was going to require surgery this year, but would not die, then I would let the life insurance lapse and would upgrade my health insurance.

Facing the unknown, most of us opt for broader, less-effective measures to prevent bad outcomes.

As the BP story goes, we know that they had safety equipment in place to prevent precisely this from happening. Was it the best, most expensive such equipment? Apparently not. Was it designed, however, to solve precisely this problem? Apparently so. The equipment in place malfunctioned. Is the equipment mentioned by the WSJ perfect equipment that cannot possibly ever malfunction under any circumstances whatsoever? I doubt it.

And so, what we're left with is equipment that failed to do what it was supposed to do because it malfunctioned. Wouldn't we regard that as natural evil rather than moral evil?

Bart Barber said...


E Pluribus Unum :-)

But more to your point, I agree that BP meets the standards here to invoke Res Ipsa Loquitur. My point is not to suggest that anybody other than BP ought to be held responsible. They took this business risk, and they must be the ones who face it. I'm just looking for a teaching opportunity here to think about the difference between natural evil and moral evil.

Bart Barber said...


If the facts never become any more clear than they are today, would we be prohibited forever from having the conversation?

Or, just perhaps, we could take this learning opportunity to think about natural and moral evil, conversing today about the facts in hand today, reserving the right to adapt the discussion as further facts emerge. Indeed, going through the very process of adapting the conversation to emerging facts could be a more effective learning environment than any debriefing a year from now could ever be.

Bart Barber said...

Dr. Grannemann,

This furthers the discussion. Would the abrupt cessation of petroleum products be an evil? Would our readers consider it an evil thing to learn this Friday that next Friday would be the last day that their local gasoline stations will ever be selling gasoline? That plastics and other petrochemicals are gone forever? That air travel is no more?

Your great-great-great-great grandparents lived happily for a lifetime without any of those things. Would it be evil to be deprived of them? Certainly many more people would die sooner deaths if deprived of these things.

What does the readership think? Would the overnight demise of the oil industry be an evil (whether natural or moral)?

Lydia said...

"What does the readership think? Would the overnight demise of the oil industry be an evil (whether natural or moral)?"

On the other hand, necessity is the mother of invention. Can we mention the good that can come out of the bad?

Christiane said...

An interesting debate.

The interplay of 'the common good' and the principle of 'subsidiarity'.

The oil company needs and deserves the right to make decisions in its own best interests. And yet the federal government, local governments in the area of the Gulf, all have a corresponding duty to exercise the same on behalf of the 'common good' of all citizens in the area.

The debate then is framed as an ethics problem: how far do we allow an oil company 'laissez-faire' in pursuit of profit, while 'trusting' them to make correct decisions for the fragile ecosystem in which they drill, and the for the impact a spill will have on the inhabitants of that ecosystem?

On the other hand, what IS THE ROLE of any government to have 'over-sight' of private industry with the intent of securing the protection of a fragile ecosystem and the 'common good' of all inhabitants, present and future?

The Coast Guard is an example of a government agent that 'oversees' safety. Now, the USCG Commandant is in charge of the clean-up. And who pays? The oil company.

So, in the end, the government is no longer 'an adversary' of the profit-making company, but is now an agent to help bring the situation under control, so as to limit clean-up costs.

Why not see the relationship between government and private industry as mutually beneficial in the planning stages and in the maintenance of safety equipment? Win. Win.
In a case like this, any 'extra' costs for safety would be considered an 'investment' for ALL CONCERNED?

Initially, when a venture is first planned, when subsidiarity operates as a cooperative corollary of 'the common good', then the situation may be viewed as a WIN-WIN for both the single entity's interests AND for the 'common good' of all involved and affected, in the interests of preventing 'harm'.

Just some thoughts.

Christiane said...

One more thought:

Perhaps the AMOUNT of planning and securing safety mechanisms should be PROPORTIONATE to what one stands to lose in the event of a failure of equipment.

The 'profit' motive has recently been put into perspective now by two colossal failures in foresight:
Toyota's 'meltdown' re: acceleration pedals and now,
BP's 'spill' resulting from BP's equipment malfunction (not, as a local governor in the area stated, 'an act of God')

soooo, perhaps 'profit' needs to be 'built in' to thorough planning and investment to pro-actively meet difficulties, before the consequences destroy all hope of 'profit'. Penny-wise, pound-foolish doesn't work when 'the common good' of citizens is traded for a few dolloars more at the get-go.

It's a risk.
BP may be destroyed by this.
Probably not. Their 'profits' are substantial, so substantial that they were willing to 'risk' not using the 'remote control shut-off valve', and so save a half million dollars.

The 'risk' to the Gulf Coast? ?????

I would say BP will survive this.
What is 'learned'?
That a local governor calls it 'an act of God'. That some may refer to the spill as a 'natural evil'.

You had better believe that the oil companies love hearing that.

r. grannemann said...

I'm having trouble putting too many things in the category of natural evil. Say, for example, a volcano erupts in the ocean creating a tsunami that kills a million people. Clearly, we say, a natural evil. But then an island is born and becomes a paradise for man. Clearly, we say, a natural good.

Every weekday at noon I walk with an old timer at work, a seventy-two year old man who tells greats stories. Yesterday he told me about growing up in Beaumont, Texas. Before they started drilling off shore, he said, there was so much surface oil that they always got oily when they went to the beach. Offshore drilling, he claims, relieved the underground pressure and the surface oil vanished. The microbes that fed on the oil probably died he said. A natural evil? Now the oil is coming back. A natural good?

I'm an environmentalist and I don't mean to feed the anti-enviromentalist right (the earth overall is in dire straights), but I wondering just how serious some oil on the beach really is. Does the press just need a good story?

Joe Blackmon said...

Two observations:

1) The only way to guarentee with 100% assurance that an oil spill from an oil rig will not happen is to not drill off shore, which of course is what people like BH and L's want.

2) I find it interesting that the same people who want America's enemies to defeat her and want America to surrender her national soverignty and submit to the dictates of foriegn governments are the same people who oppose anything that would lead to America's energy independance. In other words, left wing whack jobs. What would be nice is if we could decide to start a colony on Mars and send that very small but oh so very vocal minority to live there. I'd chip in to pay for their trip. That way, real Americans who love this country could live in peace.

bapticus hereticus said...

Bart: BH, If the facts never become any more clear than they are today, would we be prohibited forever from having the conversation?

bapticus hereticus: Are you under the impression that nothing new will be learned, especially given the recency of this event? And yes, at some point the gains in knowledge will be redundant or not add significantly to what is known, but I am not under the impression this is that moment. If the point of discussion is about finding a better truth rather than the defense of one that is already supposed as such, why engage in something in which the general public knows relatively little when so little is to be gained than might otherwise be?

Bart: Or, just perhaps, we could take this learning opportunity [1] to think about natural and moral evil, conversing today about the facts in hand today, reserving the right to adapt the discussion as further facts emerge. [2] Indeed, going through the very process of adapting the conversation to emerging facts could be a more effective learning environment than any debriefing a year from now could ever be.

bapticus hereticus: [1] If that is your purpose, is there not another example that you can find in which a good amount is known and is useful for bringing about nuances that are inherent in higher-order discussions? [2] There is, however, a place for teaching a live case, but evaluation is one of the last discussions; yet, here it is the starting point. No thanks; not at this time.

Christiane said...


It's me, L's

I have been praying for you that your other eye should heal and be well. I have been worried for you since I read about your new eye trouble.
This is off-topic, but I was SO GLAD to see you blogging just now, that it wouldn't have mattered what was in your comment. (That is 'glad') :)
That's the truth.
Love you dearly,

Joe, some of those 'left-wing whack jobs' are just as crazy as all of those 'right-wing whack jobs'. I will give you that.
I vote for some plain good ole-fashioned American 'common sense'. There was a time when this country was blessed to be filled with it, after WWII.
There was something very special about that generation, I think. Their passing will leave us less strong 'as a nation'.

Joe Blackmon said...


I've got no new eye trouble. Right eye had surgery last year. Left eye about 10 years ago. Both for detached retina. Both are about as well as they have been since they healed. Thanks.

Christiane said...


I must have read an old comment and taken it for news. Sorry about that.

On second thought, those prayers will not go 'for nothing', and I am very glad to hear that you have no new trouble now.

Be peaceful,