It’s popular among some of our current philosophers to make a big thing of disbelieving in God. For Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens, atheism is an urgent social cause. A widespread naive belief in religion, these philosophers argue, has been a source of great hatred and suffering. And yet they fail to challenge another widespread naive belief that is actually much more malignant than the belief in God. Even some atheists cling to this other naive belief.
I’m talking about the belief that Evil is real. Not evil but Evil — a mysterious sinister agency that infects certain leaders or populations with the drive to cause great harm. The Evil is a force of almost magical, eternal power, and it operates beyond the reach of trustful negotiation or rational compromise.
We have seen that artistic symbols of absolute Evil fill our shared imagination (with fictional representations like Voldemort and Palpatine) and we have seen that the historic lessons of the wars of the 20th century are often boiled down to a single principle, a vast meme that has dominated global foreign policy since the end of World War II: appeasement of Evil enemies is always a bad idea, and pacifism is a gateway to appeasement.
The image at the top of the page is the skeleton of England’s King Richard III, recently found near the site of the King’s final battle. We know from Shakespeare that Richard III was utterly Evil — and since Richard’s line of claimants to the English throne has been completely extinguished, we’ll never know Richard’s side of the story. Instead, we recognize King Richard III’s cunning deceit and lustful jealousy as primal characteristics of Evil leaders, and we note the parallels with more recent murderous tyrants — Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Osama bin Laden.
Closer to home, we often sight the same ultimate Evil in domestic settings. Our recent exploration of the Watergate scandal in 1970s America pointed out this country’s curious tendency to blame the Watergate scandal on President Richard Nixon’s innate personal character flaws — as if the larger national character flaw represented by the horrifying fiasco of the Vietnam War had nothing to do with the fall of the Nixon administration. It’s easier, apparently, for us to believe that a single Evil politician named Nixon had managed to sneak into the White House despite the hidden mark of the beast that must have been hidden under the dark hair of his scalp than it is to accept that our entire nation had enthusiastically supported and repeatedly voted for a war that was effectively evil. To avoid admitting that our nation had become evil, we pretend instead that our president was Evil. Here, the popular notion of Evil provides us a simplistic way to conveniently excuse our wider national guilt during the Watergate era.
Or course evil exists — people and entire societies are often vile, ignorant, envious, sadistic and brutal. But if we intend to take ethical philosophy seriously (and ethical philosophy is, of course, the whole point of the Philosophy Weekend series), we must firmly reject the simplistic notions of absolute Evil that prevail in the popular imagination, and instead reach for the wisdom of thoughtful and inquisitive ethical philosophy.
It doesn’t seem to be generally understood how much the notion of absolute Evil pollutes the process of ethical philosophy, and also renders meaningless the practical task of real-world politics that is always influenced by our philosophical principles. It’s not generally understood that the naive belief in absolute Evil makes ethical philosophy itself impossible.
What can the word “ethics” possibly mean in a world torn between forces of Good and Evil? In this context, the word loses its meaning completely. The primary characteristic of absolute Evil is that it cannot be reasoned with or negotiated with; it must simply be killed. (The fact that nobody has ever managed to kill Evil, except in Harry Potter or Star Wars franchises, doesn’t seem to bother the fervent believers in the endless war against Evil, who dominate our political dialogues to this day.)
It’s because the belief in absolute Evil renders ethical philosophy impossible that this abstract topic may be more important in the real world than it seems. Every political thinker must choose: you can either subscribe to the belief that absolute Evil exists in the world, or you can engage in rational philosophy about the problems of ethical co-existence in the world. You cannot do both.
The fact that the belief in absolute Evil is childish and naive is especially ironic in light of the popularity of today’s atheist philosophers, who say that the popular belief in God is childish and naive. Well, for all we know, they may be right. But its inexplicable that some of these very same philosophers hold tightly to the childish and naive belief in absolute Evil.
I’m thinking particularly of an article written by Christopher Hitchens shortly before he died, titled Simply Evil. In this widely praised piece, Hitchens slammed moral relativists who see two sides to every issue:
“… many of the attempts to introduce “complexity” into the picture strike me as half-baked obfuscations or distractions … against the tendencies of euphemism and evasion, some stout simplicities deservedly remain … The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fully deserve to be called ‘evil.'”
Hitchens’s words were evidently considered powerful by many, even though his argument for a belief in a supernatural force strangely contradicts his own fervent atheism. If Hitchens were alive today, I’d love to challenge him in these terms: if you don’t believe in the real existence of God, why do you still cling to a belief in the real existence of Satan?
I’m sure Hitchens would come up with a clever answer to this question, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what a rational answer might be.