We live in a world suffused by the awareness of Evil. Not so much “evil” as described by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
morally reprehensible, sinful, wicked; arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct
but rather a notion of complete, essential and immutable Evil — more like the definition in The Catholic Encyclopedia, which begins:
Evil, in a large sense, may be described as the sum of the opposition, which experience shows to exist in the universe, to the desires and needs of individuals; whence arises, among humans beings at least, the sufferings in which life abounds.
This is Evil with a capital E, a singular thing, a characteristic that is applied to humans but seems to originate beyond nature and beyond the bounds of normal life. Like a villain’s superpower, this Evil is not a compound object but rather a basic element. It can be defeated but it can’t be destroyed. And this Evil walks among us. It has a human face.
I’ve mentioned a few times in previous Philosophy Weekend posts that my main concern with these posts will not be academic philosophy but rather popular philosophy — the ideas, beliefs and principles that emerge when smart people talk together, say, at family or social gatherings, or at work, or on the Internet or on radio and TV news. Here, the notion of Evil is absolutely dominant (and seems to have been especially so in the past decade, since the attacks of September 11, 2001). It’s difficult to have a discussion of political or global problems without somebody bringing up the concept of ultimate Evil as a basic principle of life.
It also comes up when people discuss personal problems, work problems, family problems. When we have difficulties with a co-worker, we tend to explain the problem simply: the other person is “an asshole”, an “absolute jerk”, with no chance for redemption and no right to understanding. Years ago when I went through a divorce, I was amused to learn that it’s a divorce lawyer’s basic method to agree emphatically with every gripe or complaint his or her client has with his or her soon-to-be ex, and to encourage the idea that his or her client is blameless and the other party contemptible, horrible — Evil — in every way. (The uncomfortable truth is that every divorce lawyer would have been just as happy to represent the other person in the marriage, if the other person had contacted them first).
On the global/political level, of course, it’s easy to believe in Evil because we have so many examples: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Chairman Mao, Pol Pot, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. On a smaller social scale, we have our criminal psychopaths: Charlie Manson, David Berkowitz, the Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the pampered rapist film director Roman Polanski, the Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho. With so much Evil around us, is there any appropriate time or space to bring up the question of basic validity of the concept of ultimate Evil, singular Evil, immutable Evil?
Nobody will make themselves popular by trying.
There is probably no recent historical figure as universally identified with Evil as Adolf Hitler, whose name has become a cliche. A useful book called Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum takes the unusual step of trying to analyze our society’s obsession with Hitler’s image. The book does not offer a single biographical or psychological explanation of Hitler’s actions (this is something many other historians or biographers have tried to do) but instead surveys the entire field of “Hitler Studies” (as Don Delillo called it in his novel White Noise, a satire that features a professor of Hitler Studies at a posh college). Rosenbaum’s book examines the various ways different authors or historians from Hugh Trevor-Roper to Hannah Arendt to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen have tried to comprehend the legacy of Hitler, World War II and the Holocaust.
I like this book, but it doesn’t explain Hitler. By the end, a careful reader’s takeaway may be that we can’t accurately probe the psychology of Adolf Hitler without first probing the psychology of Hugh Trevor-Roper, Hannah Arendt and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. There’s not much moral satisfaction in that.
I plan to think more about and write more about the meaning of “evil” and the existence of “Evil” in the world on this blog, because I’m increasingly convinced that this is an absolutely central moral problem, and that the popular belief in the real existence of ultimate Evil must be further analyzed and better understood before we can clear up some basic problems in the field of ethical philosophy. The basic problem is this: if we believe that Adolf Hitler (or Joseph Stalin, or Charlie Manson, or our ex-spouse or the last boss who pissed us off at work) is Evil with a capital “E”, it follows that Evil with a capital “E” is real, walks the earth, has a human face.
The next conclusion, then, is that there are more like Hitler among us. If there was one, there must be many. Is Glenn Beck Evil? Is Barack Obama Evil? I know some people who would agree with the first statement, and some who would agree with the next. I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t refer to Adolf Hitler as Evil, but I also don’t know anybody who’s managed to solve the problem of the moral slippery slope that follows the belief that any person can be Evil with a capital “E”.
A person who is Evil lives beyond the realms of moral philosophy. They cannot be redeemed or reasoned with. Kant’s categorical imperative does not apply in their cases. To put it most bluntly, an Evil person is not human.
It’s the basis of moral philosophy, though, to strive for universality amidst common humanity. An ethical principle must be universal, or it can hardly claim to be a principle at all.
The nature of evil may seem to be a trivial topic, but I’m convinced that we won’t be able to get anywhere as ethicists until we address this question head-on. It’s funny that in the years since September 11, 2001 there’s been a popular movement towards atheism, as if the naive belief in God could be identified as a major source of the world’s problems. I think we need to redirect that inquiry. I know more people who believe in Evil than believe in God today.