on evil

battle of ideas, 30 october 2011

The historian Steven Shapin famously began his study of the Scientific Revolution with the line: ‘There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution and this is a book about it.’ I sometimes think that discussions of evil are infused with the spirit of that Shapin sentence. On the one hand, there are those who insist that ‘There is no such thing as evil, and I’m going to tell you what it is’. And on the other, those who claim that, ‘Evil definitely exists, but it is inexplicable.’

Part of the problem in discussing evil is confusion over the kind of debate we are having. There are two levels of debates one can have about morality. There are first order debates about normative ethics. These lead to questions such as: Is abortion acceptable? Is it just for bankers to receive million pound bonuses? Is equality a good? And so on. Then there are second order debates about metaethics: debates not about whether X is good or Y bad, but about what anchors our morality, and what ultimately justifies the insistence that X is good and Y bad. The two are closely linked, of course: what we think about abortion or torture or equality is inevitably shaped by the overall moral framework we adopt and, at the same time, helps define that framework. Nevertheless, the two kinds of debates are distinct.

Much of the difficulty we have in thinking about evil comes about because we imagine that the debate is about normative ethics, when it is also, indeed primarily, a debate about metaethics. When we say ‘Hitler was evil’ we are not making the same kind of statement as when we say ‘charity is good’ or ‘torture is bad’. What we are actually doing is making a claim both about the boundaries of morality itself and about human nature, about what it is to be a moral being.

To talk about evil is to define the space within which it is possible to have a debate that we can meaningfully call ‘moral’. A Kantian and a utilitarian will undoubtedly disagree profoundly about torture. One will probably think that torture is always wrong, even in the so-called ticking bomb scenario, while the other may well believe that it is acceptable to torture a terrorist to get vital information that could save lives. Each may even believe that the other is being immoral. Yet they are likely broadly to agree that both are debating in a meaningful way questions of right and wrong, good and bad. Each is simply at a different place in the moral landscape. But if someone were to say ‘Torturing terrorists is an unalloyed good’, it is unlikely that you would see him as making a moral argument at all. In other words he is outside the defined boundaries of the moral landscape. And most people would probably call such claims, or such acts, ‘evil’.

Evil, in other words, is not simply about defining an act as being particularly wicked. It is also about defining the space within which we can have a meaningful debate about good and bad, virtue and wickedness. It is moreover a means of helping to define what it is to be a moral creature. From Augustine’s vision of the Fall, of the introduction of sin into the world and of the wretchedness of human being, to Milton’s creation of an almost-human Satan, to Simon Baron Cohen’s desire to replace the idea of evil with that of ‘deficient empathy’ – discussions of evil are always means of illuminating particular notions of what it is to be human. Each is a vision of human nature defined by particular moral boundaries. And each is a vision that, in turn, helps legitimate those boundaries.

‘If God does not exist, everything is permitted’. Dostoevsky never actually wrote that, but the sentiment clearly runs through his work. And it’s one to which most religious believers cling. The point, however, is that all moral systems, religious or secular, require both boundaries and justifications. Without boundaries there can be no moral thought. And yet using the concept of evil to police moral boundaries is also deeply problematic.

Evil is about the transgression of moral boundaries and about the necessity for those boundaries to be policed. Historically, the concepts of evil, sin and transgression have often been seen as synonymous. It is no coincidence that the apple in the story of Adam and Eve comes from the Tree of Knowledge. Evil, here, is about the policing of moral boundaries, and of moral debate, about the defining, the demonization, of dissenters as heretics, as inhabiting the space beyond the border. It is not simply religious moral codes that use evil in this fashion. Secular societies clearly do too.

In placing certain acts, thoughts, beliefs beyond the boundary, it becomes a means of rendering them not just unspeakable but also inexplicable. Evil is often seen as an act without purpose. In his book, On Evil, Terry Eagleton has written of evil that ‘It is supremely pointless. Anything as humdrum as a purpose would tarnish its lethal purity… [It is] the pursuit of nothingness for nothingness’s sake.’

But take the Holocaust, the defining event in most contemporary discussions of evil. It was certainly not ‘the pursuit of nothingness for nothingness’s sake’. The deathcamps, the genocide, all had, from the Nazis’ point of view, a purpose. Evil is not acting without purpose. It is acting with a purpose that falls outside the boundaries of what we can conceive as being moral, or indeed, human. In rendering evil inexplicable, we are doing disservice to reason and to the ability to prevent the repetition of such evil.

The concept of evil also renders boundaries absolute. That is the whole point about them. But, again, consider the Holocaust. Today it is regarded as the expression of absolute evil, and Hitler as the very embodiment of the evilness. Yet, a millennium ago, few would have seen anything exceptional about Hitler; nor been particularly horrified at mass slaughter or even at the barbarism of the deathcamps. We only imagine otherwise because we romanticise the past, as Steven Pinker points out in his new book The Better Angels of Our Nature. It is true that modernity, and more specifically capitalism, helped industrialise mass slaughter, as it did also, for instance, the institution of slavery, and hence made possible the Holocaust. But it also helped create the social and political conditions in which such acts and institutions came to be seen as morally repellant, as evil, and in which it was possible to challenge them, morally and politically.

The Holocaust has come to occupy its symbolic role in contemporary society only because moral views have transformed, because over time we have come to recognize the immorality of racism and of genocide. We have come to see the Holocaust as an absolute moral boundary, in other words, only because moral boundaries are not absolute. If they were we would view the Holocaust in a very different way.

What all this suggests is that the concept of evil expresses the predicament of being human. Not just the fact that humans are capable of performing the most atrocious of acts as well as the most generous. But also the fact that the human condition is that of possessing no moral safety net. ‘Every man his own moralist’, Kant wrote. In other words, humans have to make their own moral laws, establish our own boundaries. But to say that morality is humanly created is not to say that moral rules are simply subjective or arbitrary. The fact that we see the Holocaust – indeed any genocide – as evil is an expression of moral progress. Human society has become more moral and more rational.

The difficulty we have in thinking about morality as humanly created and yet not arbitrary, is is a key reason that debates about morality, and about evil, are polarized between the absolute and the relative, between those who insist in the fixity of moral boundaries and those who do not see any boundaries at all. God is one instantiation of that difficulty. The devil – whether in religious or secular garb – is another.