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From "A Philosophy of Evil".

forthcoming April 2010

When I first seriously took up the subject of evil many years ago, I faced a challenge. I had to prove that the idea in general was still relevant to philosophical discussion. Back then, of course, the idea was undergoing a nascent "renaissance." However, among my colleagues in philosophy, and even more so among my colleagues in other disciplines, the idea of evil was seen as a holdover from a mythical, Christian worldview whose time was already past.

When I first began to "rehabilitate" the idea of evil, it appeared to me as an object of fascination. This fascination was especially tied to the tendency to regard evil as an aesthetic object, where evil appears as something other and therefore functions as an alternative to the banality of everyday life. We're steadily exposed to more and more extreme representations of evil in films and such, (1) but this form of evil doesn't belong to a moral category. Like most other things in our culture, evil has been aestheticized. Simone Weil writes: "Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating." (2) In fiction, evil feeds off its fictional nature. It poses a contrast to the banality of everyday life and represents a transcendence of the same. "Evil" is translated as "transgression," "the sublime," etc. When such aestheticization becomes dominant, we lose sight of the horror associated with evil. For the purely aesthetic gaze, there is no actual victim. As a purely aesthetic phenomenon evil becomes a game without consequences, something we can gorge ourselves on, play around with, or shed a tear about without worrying that the knife will cut too deep. (3)

Eventually, my rehabilitation of evil took a more serious turn. In Europe, we closely followed the events in the former Yugoslavia: the reports of mass murder, rape, and extreme forms of torture. So much meaningless brutality, we thought, as we read about Serbian troops who forced Muslim fathers and sons to have sexual intercourse, or male prisoners who were forced to stand naked and watch women strip off their clothes. Anyone who got an erection had their penis cut off. It's difficult to find an explanation for why such things happen. Yugoslavia was a shock to us. We thought such things didn't happen in the light of day, at least not in our part of the world. "Evil" was the only word that could begin to express the horror of these events.

Then came September 11, 2001, and suddenly the idea of evil assumed a prominent place in political discourse. That day George W. Bush declared: Today, our nation saw evil." Tony Blair has remarked that "mass terrorism is the new evil in our world today" and that "we, like them, will not rest until this evil is driven from our world." Ariel Sharon was quick to hop on the bandwagon. As he stated: "There is no 'good' and 'bad' terrorism--it is all horrific, all evil, all lacking in human values."

The events of September 11, as well as the years that have followed, have shown us how potent the idea of evil still is, and how dangerous the use of the word can be. As I sit and write these words, Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip are suffering under an Israeli attack. It is difficult to regard this attack--with its systematic destruction of civilian targets such as schools, greenhouses, and mosques--as anything other than a collective punishment directed against the Palestinian people. The magic word used to justify the invasion is "terrorism." And since terrorism is defined as evil incarnate and Hamas is a terrorist organization, the elimination of Hamas justifies any and all means--no matter the suffering it may cause to Palestinian civilians.

Much has changed since I first began working on this book. In the beginning, I wanted to leave out almost all material regarding sadists (4) and genocide, because I wanted to focus on ordinary, as opposed to extraordinary, evil. However, it soon became clear that our concept of evil is so closely tied to these extreme phenomena that they had to be included. Extreme actions undertaken by "monsters" are among the clearest ideas we have of evil. Perhaps there really are human "monsters"--and by that I mean people whose actions are so extreme that we simply can't identify ourselves with them--but there are far too few of them to explain the abundance of human evil in general. In the end, it is we--we normal, more or less decent, respectable people--who are responsible for most of the mischief. We are the only explanation for all the evil in the world. From this point of view, it is "normal" to be evil. Of course, we resist describing ourselves as evil. Il anyone is evil, it's always "them."

I emphasize the Holocaust in this book, because there's such a wealth of research concerning the perpetrators that we gain a unique insight into how completely normal people can become involved in the greatest evil imaginable. When I discuss the Holocaust, my focus will not be on Hitler, but instead on the "normal" people who participated in the mass exterminations. I'm most interested in the relevance the idea of evil has for an understanding of ourselves as moral agents. When it comes Hitler, most of us have no reason to identify ourselves with him. On the other hand, we can identify ourselves with these other agents. For this same reason, I don't focus on serial killers and the like. At the same time, I will not claim that there is any categorical difference between "us" and "monsters." Jeffrey Dahmer's father, Lionel Dahmer, describes his inability to understand how his son could become one of the worst serial killers in the history of the United States. At first, his son seemed like a complete stranger. However, slowly but surely, he began to realize how something could have turned him "into the person my son became." (5) I believe it's possible for all of us to discover sides of ourselves that find ah extreme expression in cases such as Jeffrey Dahmer's. But I also believe that the grounds for identification with people such as Dahmer--who was obviously a seriously disturbed young man--are tenuous enough that I prefer to focus on normal, evil people. I am interested in what the idea of evil can contribute to an understanding of us.

It would be intellectual hubris to believe that I could make evil completely intelligible. My concept of evil has changed during the time I've spent working on this book. In the beginning, evil was first and foremost an object of fascination. Then it became something more terrifying, and finally something that depressed me greatly. Perhaps that's all evil is in the end: sorrow. I assume the reader will be able to picture in detail the events I discuss. However, those who expect graphic descriptions of crimes--instruments of torture past and present, what serial killers did to their victims, extreme methods of execution, etc.--will be disappointed. For the most part, I've left out such details. Perhaps the book would have been more "entertaining" if it did contain these descriptions, but my primary goal wasn't to write an entertaining book. Besides, I believe that the relatively sober details are hair-raising enough.

The subject of this book is too extensive, too complex, and too ill defined for any representation to do it justice in a truly satisfying way. It was never my intention to give Gesamtdarstellung, a complete picture, capturing evil in its full complexity and providing a solution to all the problems evil presents us with. But even singling out certain aspects I felt were especially central to the discussion proved to be more problematic a task than I ever imagined. I thought that, academically speaking, I was well prepared to write this book, but when I began to survey the source material I felt like I was drowning. I've never worked on any project that demanded such extensive source material; I was only able to cover a fraction of the literature on the subject, leaving out, in the process, many things that I found particularly interesting. Nevertheless: I hope I've included the most important works. This isn't a History of Evil, even though I do track changes in historical sources. A complete history of evil from the Old Testament (or even earlier: from the Gilgamesh epic) to the present day would prove a far too comprehensive task. Instead, I've chosen to limit my discussion to certain topics and theories that I find especially interesting and relevant.

There are four traditional explanations concerning the origin of evil: (1) People are possessed or seduced by a malevolent, supernatural power, (2) people are determined by nature to act in a certain way that can be called evil, (3) people are influenced by their environment to commit evil acts, and (4) people have free will and choose to act in accordance with evil. Of these four explanations, I will focus most on (3) and (4), while (2) will be handled more succinctly. On the other hand, I will not discuss (1) at all. In my opinion, this is not a subject for rational debate, but is purely a matter of religious belief. That is to say, I will not take up the existence of Devils and Antichrists, because I consider these subjects to belong to theology or to the history and sociology of religion much more than to philosophy. In the course of the eighteenth century, the Devil lost his place as a convincing explanation for evil. Religious, magical and mythical themes do not occupy a central place in this book, even though I do engage in a relatively in-depth discussion of the problem of theodicy, that is, how God's existence is compatible with all the evil that is found in the world. In this book, I'm more concerned with humanity than God--something that obviously has to do with the fact that I'm not a believer. The choice to take humanity as my point of departure, however, does not mean that I think I've found the root of all evil. Instead, it's simply in human interaction that evil first and foremost makes itself known. It's clear that where evil is concerned the boundaries between philosophy and theology are blurred ... For myself, however, evil is about interhuman relationships, not about a transcendent, supernatural force. When we call evil actions "inhuman," we completely miss the mark. Evil is human, all too human. As William Blake writes: "Cruelty has a Human Heart." (6)

Again, the goal of this book is not to unearth "the root of all evil" or follow evil to its source, but first and foremost to describe certain characteristics of human action: the positive and negative possibilities contained therein. One problem we face, however, is that the negative possibilities are so much greater than the positive. In terms of causality, it's always easier to do evil than to do good; easier to hurt another human being in ways that will haunt them for the rest of their lives than to do a comparative amount of good; easier to inflict an enormous amount of suffering on a whole people than to bring about a comparative state of prosperity. In short, there's an asymmetry between our ability to do good and our ability to do evil. This may be a defining condition for human action, but it's still our responsibility to do more good than evil. In writing this book, it was my wish to understand the criminal rather than the victim, and I put more weight on evils committed than on evils suffered. Some people will perhaps say that the victim deserves a greater share of the attention, but it should be obvious where my sympathies lie.

Translated from Norwegian by Kerri A. Pierce

(1) This is obviously nothing new, and our present fascination with evil clearly has its roots in the Romantic. For more on this subject, see Davenport: Gothic: 400 Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin; Gillespie: Nihilism Before Nietzsche, esp. chpt. 4; Russell: Mephistopheles, esp. chpt. 5; Bohrer: Nach der Natur.

(2) Weil: Gravity and Grace, p. 70.

(3) Oscar Wilde writes about how art expresses reality--that is, life--but in a tame form that prevents us from hurting ourselves. Therefore we must turn to art--not life--for all our adventures and experiences: "Because Art does not hurt us. The tears we shed at a play are a type of the exquisite sterile emotions that it is the function of Art to awaken. We weep, but we are not wounded ... But the sorrow with which Art fills us both purifies and initiates ... [It] is through Art, and through Art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence" (Wilde, Complete Works, p. 173). Art, therefore, becomes a defense against life's burdens, and aestheticism becomes escapism. In my opinion, that encompasses all aestheticism--and Wilde himself implements a critique against such aestheticism in later works, especially in The Picture of Dorian Gray and De profundis.

(4) The term "sadism" is used in this book in association with rape, not consensual sexual intercourse.

(5) Cited in Masters: The Evil That Men Do, p. 179.

(6) Blake: "A Divine Image", in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, p. 32.
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Author:Svendsen, Lars
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Essay
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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