Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Is Evil Real?

Hannah Arendt in her psychosociological study of Adolf Eichmann famously claimed that ‘in certain circumstances the most ordinary decent person can become a criminal’. This echoed Eichmann’s defence at his trial where he declared ‘I am not the monster I am made out to be, I am the victim of a fallacy’. The idea here is that it is social, especially role-factors, that are the most important determinant of individual behaviour. Roles not only carry a certain weight of authority, but they are often overseen/controlled by relations of authority. This contests the common-sense view that assumes that if people know what is morally right about a situation they will act accordingly.

As many of you probably know, Stanley Milgram famously performed a series of experiments that tried to test the truth of these claims. And he ‘showed’ that by and large they were true – that in an experiment where the subject is asked to deliver lethal electric shocks to a stooge with a ‘heart condition’, 63% of all subjects complied. This was true for subjects from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds- and this was a shock for Milgram because he had expected that Germans would emerge as the most obedient subjects….

The question of evil in philosophy is of course an important question. Can we view evil as 'banal' - as the simple mechanism of a social routine? Is evil, in modern contexts, simple faceless bureaucracy left to expand without limit? Is evil simply a blind and impersonal mechanism?

Neil Turnbull


  1. The word "evil" seems to me to be a highly emotive one, certainly in common parlance as related to people. This seems to render it at least problematic for the purposes of philosophical analysis.
    For example, to call someone evil seems to be an all-encompassing statement, to suggest that they are 100% bad, whereas to say someone is "good", seemingly the opposite term, doesn't necessarily seem to connote 100% goodness. It is as if the notion of evil negates, defuses, any possibility of the positive, whereas good and bad (rather than evil) can co-exist happily in human nature.
    However, does it really make sound philosophical sense to make such sweeping value judgements? Surely a more nuanced approach is needed to render the notion of evil philosophically useful?
    To describe a faceless bureaucratic system as evil likewise seems problematic at best because, in my view the term seems to be laden with subjective values. It suggests that someone/thing is responsible for the negative outcomes of the system. This seems to make little sense when at the same time, no-one seems to have responsibility for a system which is by its very definition, impersonal.
    Of course, the religious can deploy arguments about the absence of good as making the presence of evil possible, or resort to a Manichaeistic conception of the universe as a battle between good and evil.
    In a secular society, however, the concept seems to me to be at best a lazy way of dismissing all that is "bad", and at worst, a dangerous approach which seeks to universalise, and ultimately reject, the dark side of the human condition rather than admitting its full, and frightening, complexity. Yes, someone may be almost totally "bad" but that doesn't get us very far philosophically speaking...

  2. I have to say I agree with you on this one Ruth. Evil does end to reduce complexity, and in contemporary culture it has been evacuated of all meaning. If we listen to the daily mail everything from immigrants, volcanoes, credit cards and bureaucracy is evil and if we attribute evil willy-nilly to anything in particular then it loses its exceptional status. Without an exceptional status one cannot really have evil since we could not demarcate it from bad, not bad, worst and so. This begs the question whether there are certain events which merit the status of evil since they are so truly horrific they put others in the shade, such as the Holocaust. While I certainly think the Holocaust should not be elevated over other horrific events, then we have to ask ourselves is it really possible to come up with words other than ‘evil’ for the horrific specificity of that event.


  3. In a related point, Badiou refers to Andre Glucksmann's doctrine of Evil which opines that Good is not a force which can unify political conscience, whereas Evil certainly is, and that this accounts for his (Gluckmann's) support of the USA war against Iraq. On this view, Saddam is a figure of Evil who needs to be destroyed, and the role of the philosophy is to offer an intervention, the philosopher as physician who diagnoses evil and suggests remedies to enable the status quo to be resumed. As Badiou points out, 'the American army is in the process of killing the patient, but you've got to do what you've got to do. Glucksmann is happy. He entirely subscribes to an integrally critical vision of philosophical intervention' [Badiou and Zizek, Philosophy in the Present] Badiou consistently reiterates his view, however, [a la my latest post] that inhuman rather than human intervention is what is needed on the part of philosophy, and that it is the inhuman affirmation which requires a radical choice...

  4. Wow, so much to think about!!

    Here are some thoughts/questions off the top of my head.

    1. I am not sure what you mean by 'the inhuman' and why philosophers have to think it. Maybe you could expand here - does someone like Brassier attempt to think in this way (for example). Hopefully its not simply another wild idea from a French guru!!

    2. Secular society - what's that? You mean liberal protestantism? Remember that the British Head of state is also the head of a national church (and her official title is 'defender of the faith').

    2. Much more importantly, after supervising a dissertation on holocaust survivors I have become convinced that Kantian 'radical evil' exists and in the 1930s there emerged a kind politics that willed its own counter-ethics in opposition to the Judeo-Christian idea that individuals should be treated as ends and not means. I am not sure whether these testimonies would have the same impact on everyone - but I would advise everyone to try this and see what happens.

    3. As for the idea we need to embrace 'complexity', 'ambiguity' and the need to 'define our terms' etc etc - well, this sounds like liberalism to me! I was almost expecting someone to say 'it's all subjective and a matter of opinion' (as Rubert Murdoch often argues)!

    5. Zizek, well didn't he argue for the bombing of Serbia? Maybe this is what is meant by 'inhuman affirmation'!

    Neil Turnbull

  5. Yes, Patrick and I did seem to be approaching a liberal consensus there on the concept of evil which isn't philosophically very useful so here we go:
    1.I wasn't concurring with Badiou about the inhuman being the rightful focus of philosophy-but rather quoting him. This is certainly up for debate. My interpretation of his terminology here is the inhuman as the objective sweep which he regards as the approach that philosophy/ers should take on human subjectivity and events. While this view of the role of philosophy is certainly subjective (!) I see it as a potentially useful starting point for a debate concerning the role of philosophy. Should we attempt to stand back and take a distanced stance on human affairs, in effect passing judgment in an unengaged manner. Or instead, attempt to grapple with things as they are, the state of the world, potentially intervening (in [politics, for example) as a result?
    2.By secular state, I mean that, while I could hardly forget that the Queen is notionally the head of the church, and "Christian" values are still enshrined in the law of the land (and its ethics) I don't perceive religious matters as being a driving force in many people's everyday lives. I was no doubt being over-simplistic here, and I myself need to come up with a more nuanced view!
    3 and 4. As regards the concept of evil, I do not feel that my stance falls into the swamp of relativism. It is doubtful that we could come to a consensus on whether evil exists since, as previously intimated, I am very wary of totalising concepts such as evil, which seem to be unproductive in their sweeping generality. Of course, it is philosophically important for us to discuss what "bad" is (and equally, good, for that matter, a la Plato), and as part of that debate, what people mean/have meant by evil. However, I don't believe the concept can take us very far as an interpretive framework due to its emotive, religious and monolithic qualities.
    If this is liberalism, then so be it...


  6. I think that this is a very interesting debate and one that seems to me to have implications for our legal system.

    Here I am referring to the way in which courts still have to decide whether criminals are intrinsically evil and so beyond reform or whether they might benefit from more reformatory sentences.

    This issue is particularly relevant in cases such as the Bulger murder in 1993 and the recent Edlington torture case. If we are still subscribing to the idea of nature vs. nurture are we still, by accepting that it is sometimes a case of nature, bound by religious conceptions of 'good and evil'?

    Charlie Dix

  7. Yes, good point, the notion of "evil" is certainly bandied about by the media and used as a reason to advocate a "locking people up and throwing away the key" mentality. The Joseph Frietzel case in Austria is another instance that springs to mind here-"the face of Evil" etc etc.
    What does this terminology mean, precisely? Is it merely journalistic shorthand for "bad"?, inviting us to join in a chorus of universal condemnation? And what are the implications for the legal system if we are to say that those labelled as evil are beyond any form of rehabilitation? (even if this is likely to be the case)? Where do we draw the line here, between elements of "evil" in human nature, and total "evil"? Is it possible for someone to enact "evil" and not be termed evil? I don't see why we even need to resort to deploying the term here. That doesn't mean that I would hesitate to condemn Frietzel, and be horrified by his behaviour. If anyone's actions are to be deemed evil, then his are. That said, creating monsters in this way means that we can dismiss trangression without ever addressing it.

    The idea that someone can be born evil is an interesting one, particularly since it has supposedly been lent credibility by genetic research seeking the criminal gene etc etc. Again, I would have to reiterate that for me, this is a moribund approach. To suggest that someone's life is pre-determined by their genetic make-up, however hazily we non-scientists may understand this, is a bit of a cop-out in my view. Again, it simplifies the complexities that constitute the human being, a product, dare I say it, of nature and nurture?

  8. Comforting to see that underneath contemporary academic 'radical chic' is good old fashioned liberalism - hurrah for that!

    I just am off to buy a 2CV and fairtrade tinned asparagus!

    Reminds me of the poem by Ernst Hemmingway, 'the Ernest Liberal's Lament'. It goes like something like this:

    I know monk's masturbate at night
    That pet cats screw
    And some girls bite
    And yet
    What can I do to put things right?

    This was written in 1922. 10 years later liberalism was swept away in most of Europe, helpless in the face of an ideology that it believed it could reason with...

    Makes me wonder...

    Neil Turnbull

  9. rebecca sheahan24 April 2010 at 16:23

    yes evil is real, as lot of bad things happen in the world, death, natural events like the ash vocanic eruption that is happening at the moment. It isn't necessarily a bad thing as it allows for us to no what good is. As if good things happened in the world all of the time then we wouldn't know what evil actually was. Also there is bound to be evil in the world as we are all human and so not perfect beings and in our strive to reach perfection then there has to be some kind of evil in the world.

  10. I had to check what a 2cv was, and would only ever eat fresh asparagus so I'm not sure whether I fit (or accept) your liberal label, Neil! Though perhaps that uncertainty, the unwillingness to accept dogma, is itself a sign of incipient liberalism!
    Seriously, though, while liberalism may be helpless in the face of "evil", I'm not too sure what the answer from the left field is either...
    If we accept that evil exists now, then what are the left going to do about it?

  11. Paint it green, and convert to solar power!?!

  12. I have been reading this about Good And Evil as i find the concepts very interesting. However, can we not argue that without one, you cannot have the other, and without free will and the ability to choose between them then neither would exist? Going back to the original question, however - to ask whether evil is real or not is different in my view to whether it exists or not. For me, we cannot say that someone is evil! Surely it is the actions they choose that are evil. Can we say that someone with an 'evil intention' is fundementally evil? or more evil when they carry it out??? It is surely the action that is evil!??! And yet i see a flaw with that as good and evil do not exist in the same way that people exist. The concept of good and evil are man-made from what is considered "socially acceptable"?!?!?

  13. Levinas defines evil as kind of excess of pain ‘unredeemed, unjustifiable suffering’ Evil’s excess – especially its potential to undermine the boundaries of human identity itself – is what gives its world destroying character.

    I guess that someone who was motivated to bring this about would be evil?

    Neil Turnbull