Philosophy Weekend: Does Evil Walk Among Us?

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.

7 Responses

  1. Levi, I loved your article on
    Levi, I loved your article on evil. Based on the psychology books I’ve been reading the past
    few years, the psychological root of evil is in part genetic, in part socialized, but it has a name, a diagnosis, because it’s a psychological reality: psychopathy. It’s an absolute self-absorption, a thirst for control or power, combined with a malicious instinct to play games by deliberately harming others. Both Hitler and Stalin would qualify as psychopaths, even though they were both sicker than that too (had strong elements of paranoia as well, at the very least). It seems that most of the time I run up against instances of what I’d call “evil” it’s caused by individuals plagued by this psychological malady (the absence of heart, of empathy, of humanity, whatever you wish to call it). We’re all capable of selfish actions and of doing harm to others. But evil individuals do it with a sense of pleasure, lack of guilt and deliberate malice that sets them apart from the rest of humanity. In my opinion, Hare’s “Without Conscience” and Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door” explain evil individuals best, at least psychologically. I’m sure there are very plausible and sophisticated theological and philosophical explanations as well. But for me the psychological explanations really illuminate a lot (even if they solve nothing, since psychopathy is, for the most part, untreatable).

  2. This is a really interesting
    This is a really interesting article and I am particularly taken by your statement that “I know more people who believe in Evil than believe in God today”. I think is is easier to believe in ‘evil’ because we can see wrong behaviour and ‘evil’ and know it for what it is. I have a bunch of jumbled thoughts in my head that have slipped out in response to the article. Recently where I live, a man in the midst of custody dispute stopped his car on the Westgate bridge which is very high above the docks and chose his 4 yr old daughter from the 3 children in the car (2 boys and 1 girl) carried her to the bridge’s railing and threw her over, climbed back into the car and drove on. I have struggled so much with this. His action was ‘evil’ … and ragefilled and woman-hating and obliterated every norm of the relationship between a parent and child.

    My question is is he evil or is it the action alone, are we ultimately defined by our actions? This incident came to mind when I thought about Claudia’s comment above:”…But evil individuals do it with a sense of pleasure, lack of guilt and deliberate malice that sets them apart from the rest of humanity”.

    I have been wondering this because sometimes the ease with which the label ‘evil’ is applied to Hitler and the other despots and mass murderers seems to excuse the rest of us from our culpability whatever that may be. If they are the exemplars of evil that we use as shorthand then our individual capacity to be just as evil within the limits of our own power seem to be overlooked somehow because we are not like them. I hope this makes some sense, it is late at night here.

  3. Good and evil are dualities
    Good and evil are dualities that are very human qualities that are not found in what we (may) call ‘the natural world,’ i.e the animal kingdom or the results of weather conditions or earth’s volatile movements. It is we humans who have defined both good and evil as recognitions of our behavior under various conditions.

    I agree with Claudia’s comments that evil is a psychopathic behavior. When we give free reign to our mind to control our every moment, mind will respond to that taste of power and it may manifest itself to do even the most horrendous of acts which we deem as evil. Fortunately for our humanity, the vast majority of us are able to discern between good and evil acts which is the result of our religions, philosophies and/or social interactions within family and friends in our lives.

    It is more often than not those who exhibit extreme violent behavior are those whose lives are lonely or estranged from any close relationships. These same people are more easily prone to go off the deep end when confronted by someone or something which challenges their lives and in defense they will go to the extreme to quell their minds of some fantasy or another that their mind has conjured up as being a barrier to it’s desires, regardless of social limitations or moralities. An unleashed mind can see murder as simply a defensive reaction to some stumbling block that it must overcome… nothing evil or even good… just a survival instinct. Their own minds do not recognize their evil ways as being evil at all until the society around them voices their concern.

  4. Levi, I zeroed right in on
    Levi, I zeroed right in on your comment about Roman Polanski which seems to indicate some sort of hardening of your attitude toward him since your posts during his Swiss ordeal last year. Very interesting. I’d be curious what further thoughts you had on that aside from your ideas about Evil.

    One thing I’ve always thought about in a slightly half-baked way regarding how we perceive certain mega-Evil figures as being worse or more evil than others is that some mega-Evil figures are simply better at leaving behind images than others are.

    Without in any way diminishing the horrendous evil of what Hitler did, I would point to his incredible image-making prowess as part of the reason he is considered to be so far beyond other evil people who may in fact have killed even more people. This image making was of course done by his regime, but it was certainly a product of his evil leadership.

    Hitler was Big Evil’s most viciously effective image maker. I don’t think anyone in history has ever created the imagery of Evil on the same level that Hitler did. His images all seem to agree with that Catholic Encyclopedia definition of evil as the opposition to the needs of the individual. His images all seem to lead toward the same unification of individuals into a single entity at the command of one person’s lunatic whims.

  5. Thanks as always for the
    Thanks as always for the excellent responses …

    Merrian, yes, exactly — “the ease with which the label ‘evil’ is applied to Hitler and the other despots and mass murderers seems to excuse the rest of us from our culpability”. And, closely related, it gives us a great excuse to continue the cycle of evil by acting haphazardly and destructively to root out “evildoers” without thinking very hard about what we’re doing (c.f., US invasion of Iraq).

    Dave, thanks for that link to Rosenbaum’s latest piece. Very relevant — and it’s quite funny that Rosenbaum is declaring here that the notion of “evil” is no longer in fashion, and wondering if this is a good or a bad thing. It’s a starting point directly opposite from mine, though I don’t think our conclusions are very different. He and I must be hearing different voices around us, though, because I certainly don’t find that the popular notion of absolute evil is out of fashion at all.

    Alessandro, well, perhaps my use of irony is not coming through! I was listing people who are popularly considered evil, not necessarily people who I consider evil. With that said, though: I do now regret that I wrote something last year which seemed to put me in the position of defending Roman Polanski’s horrible act of rape. It wasn’t my best moment as a blogger. I was at the time trying to make a point about the way people will jump on the bandwagon to speak out about a rapist who is a wealthy foreigner, while ignoring the fact that countless regular un-wealthy and un-famous Americans are also rapists, and have also never been prosecuted for their crimes. But that point got lost and, yes, my thinking on the Polanski controversy has evolved to the point where I wish I had never written about it in the first place. Thanks for noticing, anyway.

  6. I’m actually glad you did
    I’m actually glad you did write about the Polanski thing. I would not regret your writing about the issue at all. I think the Polanski thing is full of complexity and your bandwagon points were totally valid.

    But it’s perhaps interesting that public attention naturally gravitates toward evil that manufactures effective images. Somehow, we are loathe to actually believe that someone who can make such incredible images can be evil. In Hitler’s case, I am of course referring to his clear ability to attract the admiration of his subjects. In Polanski’s case, I am referring to our natural resistance to believing that the creator of such fine images and films could possibly be evil.

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