evil in modern thought      
spacer about Susan Neiman 'Why Grow Up? Moral Clarity current selected press   other texts (english) other texts (german) CV EinsteinForum
spacer The New York Times Book Review, 6.10.2002     further reviews
The New York Times spacer

Wall Street Journal, 3 September 2002
NYTimes, 5 October 2002
NYTimes, 6 October 2002
Times Literary Supplement, 18 October 2002
Milliyet, 24 October 2002
NRC Handelsblad, 8 November 2002
Die Welt, 14 December 2002
Washington Post, 15 December 2002
First Things, January 2003
Forward, 28 March 2003
Culture Wars, 02/2003
Common Knowledge, Spring 2003
Filosofie Magazine, April 2003
Christian Century, April 5, 2003
CHOICE, June 2003
Weekly Standard, 9 June 2003
New York Review of Books, 12 June 2003
Galileu, Número 149, Decembro 2003
Harper's Magazine, January 2004
literaturkritik.de, Nr.7, Juli 2004
Freitag 34, 13. August 2004
The Globe and Mail, September 11, 2004

Prabuddha Bharata, January 2016

There's Something Wrong With Evil

By Judith Shulevitz

sketch by Robert GrossmanCONSIDER the power of the word ''evil,'' fast edging out ''regime change'' as the buzzword of the year. It can stop objection cold; it can taint as cowards those accused of failing to grasp it. ''We refuse to ignore or appease the aggression and brutality of evil men,'' says George W. Bush, and who would disagree?

But what exactly do we mean by evil? Bush, a born-again Christian, may borrow his conception of good and bad from the Bible, but that won't satisfy everyone. Many Americans would reject the definition of evil implied by the Jewish and Christian Scriptures -- not to mention the Koran -- since those books accept as good things we now view with horror: genocide, for example (the Israelites' slaughter of the Amalekites), and natural catastrophe (the Flood).

Philosophers have spent the past 300 years trying to come up with a better definition of evil than the one religion seems to offer, or so one philosopher, Susan Neiman, says in a new book, ''Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy'' (Princeton University Press). This may seem perfectly obvious, but as a philosophical claim it is fairly controversial, because most historians of the subject would say that modern philosophy has been so anxious to differentiate itself from theology that it refused to talk about evil at all. (Philosophers preferred to ponder more important matters, like why there's something rather than nothing.) But Neiman argues that when we ask why the world is the way it is, rather than the way it ought to be, that's the same as thinking about evil.

Neiman traces the modern view of evil back to 1755, when an earthquake combined with flash fires and tidal waves to wipe out most of Lisbon in a single day. The idea that God could have wished a disaster like that on a graceful city and its innocent inhabitants so disgusted philosophers that they stopped believing that God acts through nature to punish us; thus was born (in part) our view of nature as morally neutral, an aggregate of impersonal forces. Evil was restricted to the works of evil men and their evil wills.

Even now, most people consider human will indispensable for any muscular definition of evil. The case for this position was restated eloquently by Ron Rosenbaum in a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly about degrees of evil. If we're going to avoid the foolish complacency of moral relativism, Rosenbaum said, then we must see Osama bin Laden as fully conscious of his wickedness, not deluded by the belief that he was doing good. Otherwise we'd have to exonerate him. ''If we don't believe in ordinary, knowing wickedness,'' Rosenbaum wrote, ''we can't condemn Hitler for anything more than a well-meaning ideological mistake or bin Laden for anything more than a well-meaning religious mistake.'' The key term here is ''well-meaning.'' Rosenbaum's point is that we'll fail at our duty to oppose evil if we see evil individuals in so kindly a light. But what if it could be proved that bin Laden did, in fact, mean well? That he believed in all sincerity that when he blew up the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he was acting for the benefit of mankind, or thought he was following God's orders? Would our sense of his responsibility diminish, our will to stop him fizzle? Neiman says that to be evil, someone need not be aware of the full evilness of his intentions. Neiman cites Hannah Arendt's ''Eichmann in Jerusalem,'' a book she says has wrongly been seen as letting a chief architect of the Final Solution off the hook. What if we took at face value Eichmann's claim that he didn't hate or want to kill Jews, he just wanted to advance in the ranks of the Nazi party? Would he be any less responsible for evil?

Contrary to the rules of jurisprudence, Neiman says Eichmann is responsible no matter what his intentions were. The by-now banal phrase ''banality of evil'' doesn't mean that evil is banal; it means Eichmann had too shallow a soul to grasp the enormity of his evil. This isn't that odd an idea. It's easy to see how, in an age of instant mass destruction, a gap could arise between what people see themselves as doing and the harm they are able to do.

Eichmann may have been a morally stunted bureaucrat, or a devilish liar, or both. Hitler may have had a satanic relish for his own evil, or believed he was doing humankind a favor by weeding out the racially impure, or both. Osama bin Laden may consider himself an exemplary Muslim, even while he takes a sadistic pleasure in the suffering of those who died at the World Trade Center. As long as we can agree on certain basics -- that these men were not deranged or blatantly out of touch with their surroundings or forced to act the way they did on pain of death -- then these distinctions are of psychological interest only. The idea that we judge evil men by their actions, not by the content or intensity of their beliefs, may be postmodern in the sense that it succeeds the modern Enlightenment definition of evil, but it does not lead to moral relativism. On the contrary, it leads to its opposite -- moral absolutism -- since it presumes a universal standard by which to judge behavior.

Another advantage of this position is that it allows us to admit what has seemed obvious all along: that Al Qaeda members and Palestinian suicide bombers are genuinely, sincerely, convinced that they are doing the right thing. That doesn't make them less evil, but it does make them more terrifying, since they force us to face the chilly reality of a world in which sincerity and morality have nothing to do with each other. How strongly you believe in something is irrelevant; what matters is whether your beliefs are the correct ones, and we figure that out that by examining what your belief leads you to do.

And that view demands humility, since it holds as true for us as it does for our enemies. If there is only a single standard of good behavior, then no matter how honestly we believe in our causes -- in democracy, for instance, as opposed to tyranny or religious totalitarianism -- we are never allowed to stop worrying about our own morality when we march forth to defend them.

Published: 10 - 06 - 2002, Late Edition - Final, Section 7, Column 1, Page 39

spacer spacer spacer spacer