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.