The Routledge Handbook Of The Philosophy Of Evil 1138931799, 9781138931794

Why ought we concern ourselves with understanding a concept of evil? It is an elusive and politically charged concept wh

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The Routledge Handbook Of The Philosophy Of Evil
 1138931799,  9781138931794

Table of contents :
Cover......Page 1
Half Title......Page 2
Series Page......Page 3
Title Page......Page 4
Copyright Page......Page 5
Table of Contents......Page 6
Notes on contributors......Page 9
Acknowledgments......Page 13
Historical accounts of evil......Page 14
Thinking about evil – the recent secular approach......Page 15
The purpose and structure of the Handbook......Page 17
Notes......Page 24
References......Page 25
PART I: Historical explorations of evil......Page 26
Chapter 1: Plato on evil......Page 28
Metaphysics: evil and the structure of the universe......Page 29
Evil in politics: civil strife and tyranny......Page 33
The education of desire: morality, virtue and vice......Page 37
Notes......Page 40
References......Page 41
A two-sided view......Page 43
Evil as corruption in good things......Page 44
Moral evil as disordered love......Page 46
Sin and grace......Page 47
Providence and evil......Page 49
The controversial Augustine......Page 50
Notes......Page 52
References......Page 53
For Further Reading......Page 54
The ontology and types of evil......Page 55
The causes of evil......Page 57
Evil and God......Page 59
Objections and replies......Page 63
Notes......Page 65
References......Page 66
Chapter 4: Machiavelli: The drama of politics and its inherent evil......Page 68
Machiavelli’s world......Page 69
Evil in politics: corruption, which generates tyranny......Page 71
Machiavelli’s man......Page 74
How to remain a good man while doing evil deeds......Page 76
Conclusion: the redeeming element in politics......Page 79
Notes......Page 80
References......Page 82
Chapter 5: Hobbes on evil......Page 83
Evil in moral philosophy......Page 84
Sin and temporal obligations......Page 85
Sin and spiritual obligations......Page 88
Free will, moral evil, and God’s omnipotence......Page 90
Conclusion......Page 93
References......Page 94
Introduction......Page 96
The nature of evil and its different kinds......Page 97
God’s intellect as the root of the possibility of evil......Page 99
God’s election of the best and the permission of evil......Page 102
Notes......Page 106
References......Page 107
Chapter 7: Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the origin and nature of evil......Page 110
Rousseau’s theodicy......Page 111
Rousseau’s conception of evil......Page 113
Rousseau’s genealogy of evil......Page 115
Overcoming evil......Page 116
Rousseau and our problem with evil......Page 118
Notes......Page 120
References......Page 121
Chapter 8: Kant: The evil in all of us......Page 122
Kant’s criticism of the distinction between natural and moral evil......Page 123
Evil actions and evil persons......Page 124
Radical evil......Page 127
Stages of evil and predispositions to the good......Page 129
Kant’s exclusion of the diabolical will......Page 131
Conclusion......Page 132
Notes......Page 133
References......Page 134
Chapter 9: Sade: Mushroom clouds and silver linings......Page 135
Adieu, mon dieu: a black theodicy......Page 137
When nature calls: hedonism to the hilt......Page 139
Sade beyond sadism......Page 141
From pathology to principle......Page 143
Fiction as reality’s rape......Page 144
Notes......Page 146
References......Page 147
Introduction......Page 148
Good and evil are interpretations, not realities......Page 149
Diagnosis of the moral interpretation......Page 150
A different interpretation......Page 152
Critique......Page 154
An alternative ideal and the trouble of realizing it......Page 156
Conclusion......Page 158
References......Page 159
Other references......Page 160
Chapter 11: Hannah Arendt’s double account of evil: Political superfluousness
and moral thoughtlessness......Page 161
Radical evil and the systematic production of superfluousness......Page 162
Eichmann and the thoughtless banality of evil......Page 169
Notes......Page 174
References......Page 175
Natural or divine evil: Camus, Ivan Karamazov, Saint Augustine, and Doctor Rieux......Page 176
Moral or political evil: secularizing the divine right to kill......Page 179
The psychology of evil: The Fall, guilt, and the renegade......Page 183
Notes......Page 186
References......Page 187
PART II: Recent secular explorations of evil......Page 188
Introduction: the myth of evil......Page 190
The philosophy of evil......Page 192
The philosophy of dispositions......Page 195
Beyond the philosophy of monsters......Page 197
References......Page 201
The different senses of evil......Page 202
Two explananda......Page 203
Objections to using the term “evil”......Page 204
A theory of evil......Page 207
Using evil as an explanatory concept......Page 210
Notes......Page 213
References......Page 214
Chapter 15: Defining the concept of evil: Insights from our pre-cognitive responses......Page 216
The case for secular accounts of evil......Page 217
Different approaches to developing secular conceptions of evil......Page 219
The phenomenology of evil......Page 220
Defining the concept of evil......Page 222
Solving two problems for secular accounts of evil......Page 224
Final comments......Page 226
Notes......Page 227
References......Page 229
Why should we care?......Page 231
Preliminary remarks......Page 232
Four interpretations of the qualitative difference thesis......Page 233
Evil is qualitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing......Page 239
Notes......Page 243
References......Page 245
Action-based accounts......Page 247
Absence-based accounts......Page 249
Affective accounts......Page 250
Hybrid accounts......Page 253
Extremity accounts......Page 255
References......Page 256
Why define evil?......Page 258
The concept of evil action......Page 259
Evil and wrongdoing......Page 261
Evil and extremity......Page 262
Banality v. psychological thickness......Page 264
Hidden essences and pluralism......Page 266
References......Page 267
The concept of evil......Page 269
Four types of conceptions of evil actions......Page 270
Kramer’s mixed theory of evil actions......Page 272
Formosa’s combination theory of evil......Page 275
Notes......Page 278
References......Page 279
PART III: Evil and other issues......Page 280
Chapter 20: Evil and punishment......Page 282
Evil and the limits of philosophy......Page 283
Harm and malevolence......Page 287
Senselessness, thoughtlessness, pointlessness, and essential unjustifiability......Page 290
Evil and the severity of punishment......Page 292
Notes......Page 293
References......Page 294
Introduction......Page 295
Evil as the unforgivable......Page 296
Evils as possibly forgivable but never entailing reconciliation......Page 298
Evils as only forgivable by direct victims......Page 299
Forgiveness of evils as inevitably incomplete or untrue (especially when unilateral)......Page 300
Forgiveness of evils as an elective gift and never required......Page 301
Who benefits? Prioritizing the victims of evils......Page 303
Conclusion......Page 304
References......Page 305
Concepts of evil......Page 307
Evil and responsibility......Page 310
The general problems of determinism and moral luck......Page 311
The threat of shrinking agency......Page 313
Conclusion......Page 316
References......Page 317
Chapter 23: Evil and power......Page 319
The primacy of the whole: privatio boni and theodicies......Page 320
Freedom as absolute transgression......Page 321
Modern power and secularization of evil......Page 323
Escalating radicality......Page 324
Normality of evil......Page 326
References......Page 328
Introduction......Page 330
What is a child?......Page 331
Being evil in childhood......Page 333
Doing evil in childhood......Page 336
References......Page 339
Chapter 25: Evil’s diachronic characteristics......Page 341
Notes......Page 351
References......Page 353
Introduction......Page 355
Research on genocide and mass atrocities......Page 356
Theorizing collective evil......Page 363
Notes......Page 366
References......Page 368
Introduction......Page 373
Concepts and problems of evil......Page 374
China: Confucianism and Daoism......Page 375
Indian thought: Hinduism and Buddhism......Page 379
Islamic philosophy......Page 383
Judaism......Page 387
Conclusions......Page 390
Notes......Page 391
References......Page 392
Index......Page 394

Citation preview


Why ought we concern ourselves with understanding a concept of evil? It is an elusive and politically charged concept which critics argue has no explanatory power and is a relic of a superstitious and primitive religious past. Yet its widespread use persists today: we find it invoked by politicians, judges, journalists, and many others to express the view that certain actions, persons, institutions, or ideologies are not just morally problematic but require a special signifier to mark them out from the ordinary and commonplace. Therefore, the question of what a concept of evil could mean and how it fits into our moral vocabulary remains an important and pressing concern. The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Evil provides an outstanding overview and exploration of these issues and more, bringing together an international team of scholars working on the concept of evil. Its 27 chapters cover the crucial discussions and arguments, both historical and contemporary, that are needed to properly understand the historical development and complexity of the concept of evil. The Handbook is divided into three parts: •• •• ••

Historical explorations of evil Recent secular explorations of evil Evil and other issues.

The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Evil is essential reading for students and researchers in the fields of ethics and philosophy of psychology. It also provides important insights and background for anyone exploring the concept of evil in related subjects such as literature, politics, and religion. Thomas Nys is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Stephen de Wijze is Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Manchester, UK.


Routledge Handbooks in Philosophy are state-of-the-art surveys of emerging, newly refreshed, and important fields in philosophy, providing accessible yet thorough assessments of key problems, themes, thinkers, and recent developments in research. All chapters for each volume are specially commissioned, and written by leading scholars in the field. Carefully edited and organized, Routledge Handbooks in Philosophy provide indispensable reference tools for students and researchers seeking a comprehensive overview of new and exciting topics in philosophy. They are also valuable teaching resources as accompaniments to textbooks, anthologies, and research-orientated publications. Also available:

THE ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF MORAL EPISTEMOLOGY Edited by Karen Jones, Mark Timmons, and Aaron Zimmerman THE ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF LOVE IN PHILOSOPHY Edited by Adrienne M. Martin THE ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF THE PHILOSOPHY AND PSYCHOLOGY OF LUCK Edited by Ian M. Church and Robert J. Hartman THE ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF EMERGENCE Edited by Sophie Gibb, Robin Hendry, and Tom Lancaster THE ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF EVIL Edited by Thomas Nys and Stephen de Wijze THE ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF SOCIAL EPISTEMOLOGY Edited by Peter Graham, Nikolaj Jang Lee, David Henderson, and Miranda Fricker For more information about this series, please visit: Routledge-Handbooks-in-Philosophy/book-series/RHP


Edited by Thomas Nys and Stephen de Wijze

First published 2019 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN and by Routledge 52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, NY 10017 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business  2019 selection and editorial matter, Thomas Nys and Stephen de Wijze; individual chapters, the contributors The right of Thomas Nys and Stephen de Wijze to be identified as the authors of the editorial material, and of the authors for their individual chapters, has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Nys, Thomas, editor. Title: The Routledge handbook of the philosophy of evil / edited by Thomas Nys and Stephen de Wijze. Description: 1 [edition]. | New York : Routledge, 2019. | Series: Routledge handbooks in philosophy | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2018059258| ISBN 9781138931794 (hardback : alk. paper) | ISBN 9781315679518 (e-book) Subjects: LCSH: Good and evil. Classification: LCC BJ1401 .R68 2019 | DDC 170—dc23 LC record available at ISBN: 978-1-138-93179-4 (hbk) ISBN: 978-1-315-67951-8 (ebk) Typeset in Bembo by Swales & Willis Ltd, Exeter, Devon, UK


Notes on contributors viii Acknowledgments xii Introduction Thomas Nys and Stephen de Wijze



Historical explorations of evil


  1 Plato on evil Alina Scudieri


  2 Augustine on evil Phillip Cary


  3 Aquinas on evil W. Matthews Grant


  4 Machiavelli: The drama of politics and its inherent evil Giovanni Giorgini


  5 Hobbes on evil Laurens van Apeldoorn


  6 Leibniz on evil: God’s justice in the best of all possible worlds Agustín Echavarría




  7 Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the origin and nature of evil Jason Neidleman


  8 Kant: The evil in all of us Matthé Scholten


  9 Sade: Mushroom clouds and silver linings Thomas Nys


10 Nietzsche’s critique of morality and his effort to create an evaluation “beyond good and evil” Paul van Tongeren


11 Hannah Arendt’s double account of evil: Political superfluousness and moral thoughtlessness Peg Birmingham


12 After the fall: Camus on evil Matthew Sharpe



Recent secular explorations of evil


13 Deliver us from evil: The case for skepticism Phillip Cole


14 Does the term “evil” have any explanatory power? Eve Garrard


15 Defining the concept of evil: Insights from our pre-cognitive responses Stephen de Wijze


16 Evil and wrongdoing Todd Calder


17 Evil characters Peter Brian Barry


18 Defining evil actions: Different approaches Luke Russell


19 Different substantive conceptions of evil actions Paul Formosa



Contents PART III

Evil and other issues


20 Evil and punishment Leo Zaibert


21 Evil and forgiveness Kathryn J. Norlock


22 Evil and freedom Lars Fr. H. Svendsen


23 Evil and power Simona Forti


24 Evil and childhood Gideon Calder


25 Evil’s diachronic characteristics Zachary J. Goldberg


26 Evil, genocide, and mass atrocities Jonathan Leader Maynard


27 Evil: A comparative overview Michiel Leezenberg


Index 381



Laurens van Apeldoorn is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a member of the Centre for Political Philosophy at Leiden University, the Netherlands. His research has appeared in journals including Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, History of European Ideas, and Hobbes Studies. Peter Brian Barry is the Finkbeiner Endowed Chair in Ethics at Saginaw Valley State University. He is the author of Evil and Moral Psychology (2012) and The Fiction of Evil (2016), as well as multiple papers in ethics and social and legal philosophy. Peg Birmingham is Professor of Philosophy at DePaul University. She is the author of Hannah Arendt and Human Rights: The Predicament of Common Responsibility (2006), coeditor (with Philippe van Haute) of Dissensus Communis: Between Ethics and Politics (1996), and coeditor (with Anna Yeatman) of Aporia of Rights: Citizenship in an Era of Human Rights (2014). She is the editor of Philosophy Today. Gideon Calder is Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences and Social Policy at Swansea University, UK. He is author or editor of ten books, most recently The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Childhood and Children, coedited with Anca Gheaus and Jurgen De Wispelaere (2018), and coedits the journal Ethics and Social Welfare. Todd Calder is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia, Canada. He specializes in ethics and social philosophy with special interests in evil and moral responsibility. Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA), where he is also scholar-in-residence at the Templeton Honors College. He is the author of several books on Augustine. Phillip Cole teaches politics and international relations at the University of the West of England, Bristol. He is author of The Myth of Evil, published in 2006.


Notes on contributors

Agustín Echavarría is Associate Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Navarra (Spain), where he teaches ontology and philosophical theology. He has published several papers on the fields of philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and medieval and early modern philosophy, with special focus on Aquinas, Leibniz, and the problem of evil. Paul Formosa is a senior lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. He is the author of Kantian Ethics, Dignity and Perfection (2017) and has published many articles on topics in moral and political philosophy and moral psychology. Simona Forti is Professor of Political Philosophy at Università del Piemonte; part-time faculty at the Department of Philosophy, the New School for Social Research, New York; and a professor in the PhD program in philosophy at Western Consortium, Italy. She has been a visiting professor in Philosophy and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, NY (2017) and the New School for Social Research, NY (2012–2016), and Fulbright distinguished chair professor at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL (2014). Eve Garrard is a moral philosopher who is currently an honorary research fellow at the University of Manchester. Her research interests are in moral theory, bioethics, and issues arising out of the concepts of evil and forgiveness. As well as a number of papers on these topics, she is coeditor (with Geoffrey Scarre) of Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust (2003). She has also coedited (with Stephen de Wijze) Thinking towards Humanity: Themes from Norman Geras (2012). Giovanni Giorgini is Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Bologna and adjunct professor of political science at Columbia University. He is the author of three books and many essays; most recently he coedited The Roots of Respect (2017). Zachary J. Goldberg is currently principal investigator of the DFG Research Grant “Components of Evil: An Analysis of Secular Moral Evil and its Normative and Social Implications” in the Department of Philosophy at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. W. Matthews Grant is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN). Most of his work has focused on Aquinas and philosophy of God, and he is the author of Free Will and God’s Universal Causality: The Dual Sources Account (forthcoming). Michiel Leezenberg studied classical philology, philosophy, and general linguistics. Currently, he teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. His research focuses on the history and philosophy of the humanities and on the intellectual history of the early modern Islamic world. Jonathan Leader Maynard is a departmental lecturer in international relations at the University of Oxford and a research associate of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. His research focuses on the role of ideology in political violence, genocide, atrocities, and armed conflict, and he is currently writing a monograph on Ideology and Mass Killing. He has published in scholarly journals including the British Journal of Political Science, Terrorism and Political Violence, Ethics, and Genocide Studies and Prevention, as well as for news media including The Independent and The New Statesman.


Notes on contributors

Jason Neidleman is Professor of Political Science at the University of La Verne. He is the author most recently of Rousseau’s Ethics of Truth (2017). An example of his current research on politics and storytelling can be found in Adam Smith and Rousseau (2018). Kathryn J. Norlock is the Kenneth Mark Drain Chair in Ethics at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. She is the author of Forgiveness from a Feminist Perspective, the editor of The Moral Psychology of Forgiveness, and a cofounder of Feminist Philosophy Quarterly. Thomas Nys is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. He has written on a wide variety of topics in moral and political philosophy and has published in journals such as Philosophical Explorations, Political Studies, and the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy. Luke Russell is Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Sydney. He works in the domain of moral philosophy and has published numerous papers on the nature of evil, forgiveness, virtue, and vice. In his book Evil: A Philosophical Investigation (2014), Luke provides a secular account of the concept of evil in contemporary moral thought. Matthé Scholten is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Medical Ethics and History of Medicine of the Ruhr University Bochum. He received a PhD in philosophy from the University of Amsterdam. His paper Schizophrenia and Moral Responsibility: A Kantian Essay appeared in Philosophia. Alina Scudieri is Adjunct Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Bologna, where she is also a tutor in the history of political thought. She has published on Machiavelli, the Renaissance, and Baroque political thought, as well as on contemporary liberal theory. Her current book project is on Costantino Mortati and the influence of classical political thought and twentieth-century Italian legal theory. Matthew Sharpe teaches philosophy at Deakin University in Australia. He is the author of Camus, Philosophe (2015) and articles on Camus, critical theory, politics, and the history of ideas. Lars Fr. H. Svendsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Bergen, Norway. Among his publications are: A Philosophy of Boredom (2005), Fashion: A Philosophy (2006), A Philosophy of Fear (2008), Work (2008), A Philosophy of Evil (2010), A Philosophy of Freedom (2014), A Philosophy of Loneliness (2017), and Understanding Animals (2019). His books have been translated into 28 languages. Paul van Tongeren was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and Special Professor for Ethics at KU Leuven, Belgium, until his retirement in 2015; he is still an associate researcher of the University of Pretoria, South Africa. For publications, see:


Notes on contributors

Stephen de Wijze is Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Manchester. Among his recent publications on secular accounts of evil are “Defining Evil: Insights from the Problem of Dirty Hands” in The Monist (2002), “Recalibrating Steiner on Evil” in Hillel Steiner and the Anatomy of Justice (2009), “Evil” in Oxford Bibliographies in Philosophy (coauthored with Eve Garrard), “Small-Scale Evil” in The Journal of Value Inquiry (2017), and “Political Evil” in Moral Evil in Practical Ethics (2019). Leo Zaibert is Professor of Philosophy at Union College (New York). He specializes in philosophy of law and ethics, with a special focus on punishment and forgiveness. His Rethinking Punishment appeared early in 2018.



This volume took much longer than expected. As a result, we truly tested the patience of all involved. Therefore, we would like to give special and heartfelt thanks to the following people. Rebecca Shillabeer, our first contact person at Routledge; Gabrielle Coakley, who supported us during the bulk of the process; and, finally, Adam Johnson, who guided us through the final stages. They were all extremely understanding although schedules and deadlines were pushed back several times. We would also like to thank all of our contributing authors, who uncomplainingly waited long stretches of time for their essays to finally be published in the Handbook and for meeting the deadlines we set for submission of their chapters. It has been a privilege to work with them all and it is their input that has produced this excellent collection of essays on a difficult and important topic. We would also like to thank the participants to the “Understanding Evil” conference held in Amsterdam in 2016. This conference would not have been possible without the financial support of ASCA (University of Amsterdam) and the Manchester Centre for Political Theory (MANCEPT) in the Politics Department at the University of Manchester. We also want to thank all the (former) colleagues of the Philosophy and Public Affairs group in Amsterdam, and especially Beate Roessler, Gijs van Donselaar, Henri Wijsbek, and Laurens van Apeldoorn for undying support and encouragement. Finally, we also want to thank our colleagues in Manchester, especially Francesca Gains, Miriam Ronzoni, Christian Schemmel, Richard Child, Liam Shields, James Pattison, Nicola Mulkeen, Stephanie Collins, and Stephen Hood for their encouragement and support.


INTRODUCTION Thomas Nys and Stephen de Wijze

Why ought we to concern ourselves with understanding a concept of evil? It is elusive, politically and religiously charged, and a deeply controversial and puzzling notion. Critics insist that it is at best unhelpful (it has no explanatory power) but, worse still, the idea of evil is archaic and a relic of a problematic superstitious and primitive religious past. The term is sometimes simply used as a way of referring to bad events. Natural evils are those situations where great harm or destruction occurs – earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and so on. It is also used as a part of our moral vocabulary. Moral evil refers to those acts, persons, or institutions which engage in deeply immoral activities. However, as many recent scholars have sought to argue, the evocation of moral evil very often leads to polarization, demonization, and confusion. Despite this, the continual use of the term, both in religious and secular contexts, strongly suggests that it is a concept that plays an important part in our understanding of the world and our place in it. It is especially significant when considering the ethical or moral sphere. We find it used by politicians, judges, journalists, and many others to express their view that certain actions or state of affairs, persons, institutions, or ideologies are not just morally problematic but require a special signifier to mark them out from the ordinary and commonplace. When faced with moral evil we find a particular set of responses such as horror, incomprehension, and sense of defilement.

Historical accounts of evil The concern with understanding and making clear a notion of evil has been with us for millennia. In both the Western and Eastern traditions of philosophy, and among all religious doctrines, there has been much debate over what exactly is entailed by the term “evil” even if it was not used explicitly. We find it discussed among the Chinese Confucian and Daoist traditions, and Hindu and Buddhist concerns with evil can be traced to several centuries BCE (see Chapter 27 on “Evil: A comparative overview”). Within the Western tradition we find a discussion of evil in the work of Plato, where it is a “privative” concept specifying the absence of good and a special type of imperfection and decline (see Chapter 1 on “Plato on evil”). The combination of ancient Greek philosophy (primarily Plato and Aristotle) combined with Christian theology (Augustine and Aquinas) dominated the philosophical discussions of evil for a considerable time. The concept of evil as an absence of good was put in the service of 1

Thomas Nys and Stephen de Wijze

answering theological puzzles, such as the question of how God’s creation could be all-good while still allowing for evil. Apart from natural and metaphysical evil, emphasis is also put on human beings committing sin out of their own free will. However, from the 1500s onward, with the work of Machiavelli and Hobbes, the focus on evil began to change and take a new direction. The question of political authority and its relation to divine law and sin gathered urgency. Does not politics – under the guidance of a good statesman – require “dirty hands”? And how does obedience to an absolute sovereign (this “mortal god”) square with the obedience that is due to the supreme divine lawgiver? In 1755, on All Saints’ Day, Lisbon was struck by an earthquake killing thousands of religious people. For thinkers such as Voltaire, any rationalistic defense of God in light of such undeserved and horrendous suffering is quite simply unbearable. To maintain, as Leibniz had done in his famous Theodicy of 1710, that this is the “best of all possible worlds” sounds cynical and absurd. In hindsight we could say that the Lisbon events, at least in Europe, inaugurate the gradual retreat of God from the realm of human affairs, leaving us with the – if not even more daunting – task of coming to grips with human evil in the absence of God (see here the work of Sade and Nietzsche). The mass atrocities of the first half of the twentieth century make it necessary to reconsider or recalibrate the notion of evil once again. First, what is the nature of this unspeakable and large-scale evil? It seems that, in light of such events, these actions being called “very, very wrong” does not fully capture their wrongness. Yet, if so, then what sets evil apart from ordinary wrongdoing? Second, what is the relation between such evil and politics or ideology? What institutional or political design fosters or enables such evil? And, finally, what kind of perpetrator need we presuppose to understand and explain these genocides and mass killings? Are perhaps ordinary people capable of unordinary, off-the-scale wrongdoing? Some believe that in the decades after World War II the interest in evil slowly waned (although there was no shortage of events similar to those who rekindled the debate. . .), but that it reappeared, once more, after the events of 9/11,1 perhaps as a piece of strategic political rhetoric meant to justify outrageous actions of “retribution,” or perhaps as a mere expression of our most forceful moral condemnation of a certain type of human actions.

Thinking about evil – the recent secular approach Since World War II two strong yet opposing views on how best to think about the concept of evil have gained traction. Firstly, the increasing influence of the social and natural sciences in explaining human behavior seemed to make the concept itself redundant at best. Human behavior is most accurately explained through understanding a combination of social (environmental) and genetic factors. If we better comprehend these influences on and causes of human behavior, the use of an outmoded and opaque concept such as evil can be dismissed as a relic of a religious and ignorant past. Psychopaths, for example, are not evil but driven by a defect in their neurobiology: rapists, murderers, and thieves are appropriately and properly understood as reacting to environmental factors such as a deprived and brutal childhood combined with a predisposition to aggression due to genetic factors. Evil, if this term means anything at all, is best seen as something like an “empathy deficit” that results from knowable biological and social factors.2 In the unprecedented secular milieu of the last 50 years, in many Western societies the sciences, both natural and social, have raised considerable doubts if not outright dismissal of many earlier claims made by religious doctrines. This in turn, as mentioned above, generated a strong skepticism about the plausibility and need for such a concept at all. Furthermore, even if we push the skepticism aside, we face the problem that the term “evil” is ambiguous and varies 2


in different contexts or with the intended purpose for which it is used. This serves to confuse rather than clarify our understanding of contemporary secular accounts of evil. To give a flavor of this confusion, we find that the term evil is sometimes used synonymously with the concept of wrongdoing. Claiming that an action or person is evil is merely to state that that action or person was wrong. Furthermore, the term “evil” is used to refer to catastrophic natural disasters such as earthquakes or volcanoes, where the focus is on the immense suffering that these events caused. Evil also has a rich and lengthy history within religious discourse, where it refers to those who engage in certain kinds of sin against God. This is prevalent even in largely secular societies, where the historical legacy of the term is still used and understood by significant numbers in the society. Here evil picks out supernatural monsters and devils who seek to undermine God’s commandments and goodness in general. People can be monstrous and for some there are malevolent independent forces in the world trying to undermine the natural order and/or lead human beings astray. Secondly, evil is used in contemporary secular societies to refer to cases of moral evil, either as an intensifier to capture particularly severe forms of wrongdoing and/or to point to a concerning normative qualitative difference from mere wrongdoing. Evil actions or persons provoke a special kind of response, a moral horror that marks out the distinct properties of evil in our moral landscape. This use of the term evil has led to a conviction that has recently gained traction: that the notion of evil is a necessary and valuable part of our moral vocabulary and that it must be rehabilitated from the prejudices and errors that plagues this term given its religious baggage of the past. The catastrophe of World War II, where the Nazi ideology enabled the attempted genocide of the Jews and others, combined with the savagery of the fighting (especially on the Eastern Front), revived a concern that a proper ethical discussion of such events required a term such as evil. Without it, the events experienced, and the subsequent horrors of the second half of the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty-first century such as the Rwandan genocide3 of Tutsis, the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouge, and the events of 9/11 in the USA (to mention just three), cannot be adequately described in simple normative terms. To say such events were merely wrong or even very wrong fails to capture a qualitatively different aspect of our moral reality. What is more, in societies where the influence of religious authorities has diminished considerably or is very weak, the general population, understand, and respond to, the term evil when it is used to describe particularly egregious actions of individuals or groups. Serial killers, rapists, pedophiles, corrupt officials, and organized crime bosses are described as evil without this term evoking any religious connotations or assumptions. The secular account of evil fills this gap in ethical discourse when particularly egregious acts call out for an adequate description which fits with our feelings about it. Evil indicates a case of wrongdoing which crosses a certain threshold – either quantitatively (the amount of wrongdoing is enormous) or because it has a qualitatively different set of characteristics (from the standard cases of mere wrongdoing). Evil persons engage in behaviors that are both quantitatively and qualitatively different from wrongdoing and, to signal this, evil is a necessary, useful, and explanatory concept in our vocabulary, one that enables us to properly describe our moral reality. Given these competing trends, the last several decades have seen a resurgence of work on the concept of evil by philosophers seeking to develop a coherent secular account of evil. As already mentioned, the central goal is to rehabilitate the notion of evil without evoking the historical and discredited religious and metaphysical accounts from the past but nevertheless addressing many of the concerns these past accounts explored. The development of a secular account of evil must take into account our deeply held intuitions and recent social and scientific insights concerning human behavior and character, and engage in a careful conceptual 3

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analysis of the concept using a method of “reflective equilibrium.”4 The arguments between contemporary philosophers on the efficacy and need for this very aim is instructive. Evil skeptics5 argue that a rehabilitation of the concept is both not necessary and politically dangerous. The concept of evil offers no explanatory insights and its use in secular contexts is almost always by powerful groups or persons who marginalize and exclude opponents for their own advantage. For example, Cole argues that President George W. Bush’s usage of the term the “Axis of Evil” in his State of the Union address in January 2002 to refer to the nations of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea was intended to demonize these countries, paving the way for the future illegal invasion of Iraq. Similarly, when the police and judge in the Jamie Bulger case referred to his killers as evil and their actions as “unparalleled evil and barbarity,” this served to demonize and distinguish them from the rest of humanity.6 Evil skeptics take to heart Dostoevsky’s claim that “Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”7 However, this kind of evil skepticism faces problems of its own. As Delbanco points out, we live in a world where there are so many terrible things happening that a proper normative description and evaluation of such events and persons call for a special term. The repertoire of evil has never been richer. Yet never have our responses been so weak. We have no language for connecting our inner lives with the horrors that pass before our eyes in the outer world.8 Seeking a scientific or psychological term to replace evil leave us trying, for example, to explain why individuals engaged in mass murder or genocide have a mental disorder where we vitiate their responsibility for the most heinous, cruel, and sadistic acts. Rejecting a normative notion of evil for a scientific explanation such as an “empathy deficit” or a “mental disorder” leaves us unable to properly express an important and difficult part of our moral reality. Yet, if the concept of evil remains tied to the old religious accounts and is treated as out of date metaphor, we become unable to express an important aspect of our moral world. Hence the new wave of philosophical examination of the concept by those who have been labeled as “evil revivalists.” These theorists seek to renew our understanding of evil but through rigorously secular eyes and draw on the best philosophical, artistic, social, and natural scientific knowledge we have about persons and society. This is coupled with a trenchant conceptual analysis in order to find a comprehensive and persuasive conception of evil which is both plausible and fits with our best intuitions and experiences. Certain terrible deeds committed by individuals, groups, and nations are rightly described as evil, but framed by a theory and guided by clear principles which do not rely on discredited religious and/or metaphysical world views of the past. Evil, here, simply signifies a particularly egregious or horrendous act or person for which the usual negative judgmental and condemnatory moral labels are not adequate.

The purpose and structure of the Handbook If the evil revivalists are correct, what can we learn from historical accounts of evil offered by the great thinkers and philosophers of the past? And does the existence of a viable secular conception of evil have important implications for a range of other issues of great concern? For example, if we can identify evil persons, how does this affect our understanding of punishment and forgiveness? Both of these concepts have been developed with ordinary cases of moral wrongdoing in mind. Evildoing, with its qualitative difference from mere wrongdoing, shakes the very foundational assumptions underlying these notions. Can one forgive evil? 4


What is an appropriate way to punish those who have engaged in evil actions or who possess an evil character? The answers to these questions are far from obvious and illustrate how the effects of evil infiltrate into the efficacy of other concepts and institutional practices in certain circumstances. Given all the above concerns and issues, a handbook on evil ought to fulfill a number of criteria. First, it needs to provide the reader with a solid and wide-ranging set of reflections on the notion of evil. Given the enormous range of historical and contemporary writings on this subject, it was necessary to select those topics which are most salient to understanding its history, contemporary developments, and wide impact on different moral, social, and political issues. Second, the handbook needs to offer the reader an insight into the rich heritage of analysis of the concept of evil within the Western canon of philosophical thought.9 We begin with Plato, who wrote in circa 430 BCE, and follow this discussion until the end of the first half of the twentieth century with Hannah Arendt and Albert Camus. This provides the background and context within which the secular theories of the last 30 years have been developed. The third criterion for a handbook is that it provides the reader with current debates on the topic and especially those which have taken a new and interesting turn, namely how the recent secular conceptions of evil disturb our previous understanding of moral and social ideas, for example notions such as power and freedom. The fourth and final criterion for a handbook is to provide readers with a view outside of the usual parameters of the Western canon and offer a glimpse of the views of evil in other non-Western traditions. This Handbook on evil seeks to fulfill all four criteria. It is divided into three sections: 1 2 3

Historical accounts of evil Secular accounts of evil Issues: philosophical, political, and social (these reoccur from historical accounts but within the context of contemporary work done on these topics).

As already pointed out, the historical section covers almost 2,500 years of thought from Plato to Camus. To give an exhaustive account of the debate over this period is clearly impossible and, as such, choosing which historical thinkers to focus upon is necessarily highly selective and open to much debate. The choices made for this Handbook were based on a judgment of which thinkers made significant or paradigm-shifting arguments concerning the concept of evil that either subsumed the place of the previous status quo or forced a serious rethinking of many key ideas. Alternatively, some of these thinkers extended the notion of evil to cover new political and social events which had previously not been the focus of evil scholarship. All the historical figures, then, are outstanding philosophers on the topic of evil and had considerable influence for our understanding of this concept within the Western canon. For example, it is possible to see the deep influence of religion, specifically Christianity, in the accounts of evil offered by Augustine and Aquinas but also the awareness of the deep inconsistencies and difficulties with these views. The wide-ranging concerns and insights these great thinkers identified and puzzled over inevitably find their way into contemporary theorizing. And we can clearly see this in the contemporary secular discussions which have blossomed over the last several decades. The essays in this Handbook also seek to bring the different historical accounts to life and facilitate the process of engaging with a historical set of ideas and issues in new and interesting ways not previously done in this field. The second section, focusing on recent secular accounts, gives an overview of, and further develops, the scholarship in this area. It covers the issues of whether there is a need for such scholarship as well as some of the key debates among the evil revivalists themselves. 5

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This section covers the methodological questions about the study of evil and also offers cutting-edge commentary on the different competing substantive conceptions, providing the reader with a clear overview of the debate to date. The final section in this Handbook examines topics which we need to rethink in the light of a revival and renewing of a plausible conception of moral evil. The concepts of power, freedom, forgiveness, and punishment and the understanding of terrible phenomena such as genocide, are of fundamental philosophical and practical importance and thinking about them through the lens of a conception of evil provides new and interesting insights. The final essay in the Handbook alerts readers to the enormously rich tradition of scholarship on evil outside the Western canon. These accounts arise from long and venerable traditions which have delved deeply into the human experience and illustrate just how rich and varied a discussion on evil must be to capture its universal and timeless set of human experiences. The Chinese, Indian, Islamic, and Judaic traditions have much to offer and their insights usefully challenge the Christian-dominated Western orthodoxy, prompting the need to continually rethink the issues and problems that the problem of evil provokes. It is useful to outline and highlight the contribution of each of the essays in the Handbook. Beginning with the historical section, Alina Scudieri (Chapter 1) reconstructs Plato’s thinking about evil as essentially disorder, whether in its cosmological (metaphysical), political, or moral dimensions. The universe is a “kosmos” ordered by a divine force; the good state is similarly well ordered by the Philosopher King; and there is balance in the soul of a good individual. Scudieri’s chapter both outlines and illustrates the novelty and radicalism of Plato’s ideas, thereby setting up a view of evil which deeply influences many later thinkers on this topic. Phillip Cary (Chapter 2) carefully explains Augustine’s metaphysical optimism and moral pessimism, and pays heed to the tremendous influence of Augustine’s ideas. Created by God, all being is good. Evil is therefore a lack of being, an absence of good (privatio boni). However, all being (save God) is corruptible and, in the case of mankind, corrupted by the Fall of Adam. W. Matthews Grant (Chapter 3) discusses Thomas Aquinas’s development of ideas taken from Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine, showing us, for example, how the project of theodicy (the justification of the ways of God to man) fits poorly within Aquinas’s thought. Moral accountability requires being under some moral law, which does not apply to God, who is the ultimate rulegiver. With Machiavelli we return to the relation between evil and the political already marked out by Plato. Giovanni Giorgini (Chapter 4) argues that Machiavelli, contrary to a long-held view, is not a “teacher of evil” seeking to subvert the moral labels of good and evil. Instead, Machiavelli emphasized the different moral obligations and virtues required of good effective statesmen. Politics is the realm of necessity and Machiavelli’s original contribution is his claim that statesmen are often forced to choose between evil alternatives. For the sake of a noble and desired political end, Machiavelli argues that politicians will necessarily act in ways that collide with moral and religious imperatives. They will need to commit evil in order to bring about a strong and thriving state. The theme of sin, consisting in the trespassing of God’s laws, becomes an object of intellectual debate and dexterity within Hobbes’s political theory. Laurens van Apeldoorn (Chapter 5) explains how Hobbes is able to hold that sin is essentially man’s violation of the rule of law, laid down by the civil sovereign (and not God), while at the same time holding that God, though the cause of evil in the world, can never sin, for that would indeed require – as Aquinas argued – a higher law. This becomes especially interesting vis-à-vis a non-Christian sovereign, in which case Hobbes urges martyrdom (eternal damnation being worse than death) or outward conformity with inner disobedience.



The term “theodicy” was coined by Leibniz and finds its most famous, modern description within his work. The theodicy problem is essentially how to explain the existence of evil in the world when we have an all-powerful and good God. Why does God allow for this state of affairs? Leibniz’s answer also provides us with the well-known and much-used distinction between different kinds of evil: metaphysical (imperfection), physical (suffering), and moral (sin) evil. Agustín Echavarría (Chapter 6) explains Leibniz’s view on how evil is characterized, harking back to Augustine’s view as dissonance and privation, but with these interpretations being “updated,” as it were, to the new scientific standards of his day. Most importantly, Leibniz’s statement that God “calculates” and that such calculation cannot involve the impossible considers “possible worlds” while choosing (i.e., freely actualizing) the best of all among them. God therefore does not produce or will the evils of our world, but only (in willing the good) permits them. Although perhaps most well known for its alleged absurdity, we now get a careful and honest reconstruction of Leibniz’s thought that resists easy or facile characterizations or dismissals of Leibniz’s account. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as Jason Neidleman (Chapter 7) explains, has a more “practical” approach to the problem of evil: focusing on what obstructs human happiness, and how to overcome this condition. Rousseau’s well-known answer is that these causes of our unhappiness are social, not natural (or metaphysical), which makes us both responsible yet also able to overcome, or at least address, the problem of evil. The root of all evil lies in self-love’s comparative nature (amour propre): esteem of oneself based on the opinions of others. Although not necessarily bad, Rousseau believed that his days were marked by an inflamed type of such comparative self-love. But this comparison might also be the key to our salvation (even though we are unable to undo the fall of man), as it makes morality possible, i.e., to see what unites us, what we share, rather than proving our superiority by degrading the other. Immanuel Kant introduced another term that has become prominent in the literature on evil, namely “radical evil.” With this, Kant did not intend to describe something over and above ordinary wrongdoing, but instead he used the term “radical” to indicate the innate rootedness of wrongdoing in mankind. However, to say that this propensity is a flaw in human nature would be incorrect. Our inclination toward evil is as much innate as it is freely endorsed. Human desires, as such, are not bad or evil; it is our willingness to give the fulfillment of them (our self-love) priority and precedence over the moral law. Matthé Scholten (Chapter 8) explains how the possibility (and prevalence) of immoral actions poses a challenge for the Kantian system, and how this leads Kant to his theory of radical evil. Scholten also reminds us of Kant’s three “stages” in the development of this propensity: frailty (weakness of the will), impurity, and depravity, while also defending Kant in arguing that diabolical evil – evil for evil’s sake – is an impossibility. This term, evil for evil’s sake, is often associated with Marquis de Sade. Sadism – the type of behavior to which Sade has lent his name - is characterized by the desire to inflict harm or suffering upon others. Sadists desire and deliberately intend to hurt and harm others for the sake of their own sexual satisfaction. Although this shows that sadism is not performed for evil’s sake, it does constitute a very worrisome type of wrongdoing. Thomas Nys (Chapter 9) argues that Sade’s sadism is essentially unjustifiable and hence a problem for Sade himself and that his recognition of this failure is precisely what gives his project its exuberant and frantic character. Nietzsche is most famous for considering the evil of evil. He explored the use and purpose of the qualifications “good” and “evil," and in his genealogical reconstruction argued that such labels are the invention of the downtrodden, perverting the original notions of good (strong, beautiful, healthy, wealthy. . .) and bad (as defective, not living up to the standards of the good).


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Evil is a notion born out of resentment. However, in rejecting the absolute character of good and evil, Nietzsche is also faced with a challenge: on what grounds is this critique of morality itself possible? Paul van Tongeren (Chapter 10) shows us the remarkable and perhaps surprising attempt by Nietzsche to move beyond judgment, beyond accusation: the only vantage point from which his original accusations against Christianity make sense. He seeks to explore a cogent and convincing attempt on Nietzsche’s part to indeed meet this challenge. Peg Birmingham (Chapter 11) brings together two of the most striking innovations or insights by Hannah Arendt concerning the concept of evil. First, evil – and what Arendt calls the “radical” evil of the Holocaust – consists of the production of superfluousness, of men made redundant, a process of which the culmination (and by no means the beginning) was to be found eventually in the annihilation and extermination within the death camps. This extreme evil is produced by impersonal institutional systems lacking demonic intentions normally associated with such extreme evil. This is what connects Arendt’s account of radical evil with her second innovation: her famous report on the Eichmann trail about the purported “banality” of evil. Eichmann, at least in Arendt’s view, did not have demonic characteristics. He was a diligent bureaucrat, painfully normal in his ordinary ambition of being a decent citizen and a good pater familias. His vice was thoughtlessness: an unwillingness to further question his actions. Matthew Sharpe’s chapter (Chapter 12) explains how Albert Camus addresses the problem of evil on ontological, political, and psychological levels. The first level engages with the secular age’s struggles with the problem of theodicy. The second level wrestles with the injustice of natural and moral evil. For Camus, political evil consists in the idea of justified murder (harm, cruelty), a justification that can only “succeed” through flawed paralogical “leaps.” Finally, Camus considers the question of motivation, of why people engage in evil. According to him, our personal shortcoming in the realm of virtue (our own limitations and moral shortcomings) lead us into another questionable “leap” by considering everybody guilty, bringing everybody down to a base level. Camus’s work brings us to the contemporary secular theorizing about evil. Section two of the Handbook begins with a strong rejection of the very project that the subsequent essays seek to set out and justify. Phillip Cole’s chapter (Chapter 13) makes a stringent and heartfelt case for not needing a concept of evil and warns of the political and social dangers in adopting such a term. There is no need for a concept of “evil” since we can describe and judge events and persons far more accurately and sensibly with contemporary scientific language and ideas. Furthermore, while Cole is not skeptical that the concept of evil exists, since it clearly does, he argues that the contemporary accounts developed by philosophers with all their subtlety and nuance have no, or very little, resonance within public discourses. In this fraught arena, the term is used to demonize and exclude the other for nefarious and unjustifiable political purposes. We are better off without it. Consequently, Cole is offering us an anti-theory of evil, one that calls for its abolition. Eve Garrard (Chapter 14) strongly disagrees and pushes back against Cole’s evil skepticism. She argues that evil has explanatory power, is an essential part of our moral vocabulary, and is very much needed for a full explanation of certain horrific behaviors and types of persons. Garrard carefully sets out how, and to what extent, a secular concept of evil provides such important insights and illustrates this by using extant contemporary secular accounts. Stephen de Wijze (Chapter 15) endorses Garrard’s rejection of Cole’s anti-theory, arguing that there is a concept of evil which is near universal and describes an aspect of our moral reality which is qualitatively different from mere cases of moral wrongdoing. He explores the concept of evil (as distinguished from the many different conceptions to which the concept gives rise) 8


by exploring our pre-cognitive responses to this phenomenon. The phenomenology of evil, captured by a sense of moral horror and defilement, reveals that this concept recognizes a certain kind of moral inversion or obliteration of the very boundaries of moral discourse; one that would make any tolerable social coexistence impossible. Further, de Wijze argues that, by understanding the concept of evil in this way, it has a necessary part to play in our moral vocabulary and demonstrates that evil is qualitatively different from wrongdoing. Todd Calder’s chapter (Chapter 16) focuses on what he calls the “qualitative difference thesis” (QDT). This is an issue much debated among secular theorists of evil and it is concerned with whether there is a qualitative difference between evil and ordinary wrongdoing. This is an important issue for three reasons. First, if evil is not qualitatively different from wrongdoing, then a good case can be made to abandon the use of this term altogether, reinforcing Cole’s anti-theory. Second, if indeed there is a qualitative difference between evil and wrongdoing, then those conceptions of evil that do not reflect this fact can be summarily dismissed. Third, it is important to care about the QDT as doing so will help avoid the conceptual confusion that this issue provokes. Calder takes a different approach to resolving the QDT from de Wijze’s analysis of the pre-cognitive reactions. He offers four interpretations of how evil is qualitatively different and argues for what he calls the “moderate version”: the case where the concept of evil and the concept of wrongdoing differ as they do not share all of the same essential properties. The next three chapters, by Peter Brian Barry, Luke Russell, and Paul Formosa (Chapters 17, 18, and 19 respectively) explore the different emphases of substantive conceptions of evil which have developed in the recent secular wave of scholarship. Barry carefully explores what it means to claim that a person, as opposed to an action, is evil. He argues that to do this we need to explore the sort of mental state dispositions constitutive of evil character. To this end, Barry skillfully discusses and evaluates five different possible answers, those which offer action-based, absence-based, affective, hybrid, and extremity accounts of evil character. Russell, in contrast, focuses on evil actions. He points out that strong philosophical disagreement over the nature of evil have resulted in numerous competing and plausible definitions. However, our widely shared folk judgments and intuitions about evil lead to contradictory conceptions. Russell distinguishes between psychologically thin accounts of evil, where actions are simply extreme culpable wrongs, and thick accounts, which identify the relevant subclasses of the category of extremely wrong actions that make an action evil. Our best intuitions about evil seem unable to settle the matter of which definition is correct. Consequently, Russell argues that perhaps the best way to deal with this impasse is to adopt a pluralist approach. This would enable different definitions of evil actions to be applicable and relevant depending on the particular case under scrutiny. Finally, Formosa explores what a plausible substantive conception of evil ought to offer. He argues that there are four different types of substantive conceptions of evil actions, each focusing on a different aspect of the action: its effect on victims, the motives of the perpetrator, the reactions of the spectator, and a mixed approach involving all three. Formosa argues that the mixed approach is the most plausible and he sets out his own combination theory of evil as an example of a credible and comprehensive conception of evil actions. The third and final section in the Handbook explores the impact a secular account of evil has on a number of important philosophical concepts as well as political and social issues. The first of these concerns our understanding of the institution of punishment in society. Leo Zaibert (Chapter 20) argues that if the notion of evil is indeed qualitatively different from the merely bad or immoral then it is not clear how punishment properly captures this qualitative difference. Zaibert cites horrendous events, such as the Holocaust, to locate the qualitative difference of mass evil, which challenges the usual justifications for punishment and what would be a 9

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proportional response. Our legal systems seem incapable of making a distinction for purposes of imposing punishment between those who do very wrong and those who engage in evil acts. How does the punishment of a murderer differ from the appropriate and proportionate punishment of an evil mass murderer? Zaibert demonstrates this concern with an exploration of several prominent accounts of evil where he clearly shows that full and systematic answers to the puzzle of punishing evildoers remain complex and elusive. If the concept of evil raises difficulties for how we are to understand punishment, it is no less the case for the notion of forgiveness. Kathryn Norlock (Chapter 21) notes that in the past 25 years more has been written on both evil and forgiveness than in the many previous centuries combined. Evil and forgiveness share a short history in recent philosophical literature but, as Norlock makes clear, there is a cluster of difficult questions that recur in philosophical discussions of this relationship. Is evil unforgivable? If it is, does forgiveness entail reconciliation with the evildoer? Norlock examines these and other questions in order to provide the reader with a synopsis of the complicated terrain upon which evil and forgiveness interact. Lars Svendsen (Chapter 22) explores a longstanding and very complex issue which any examination of evil needs to address. The very possibility of moral evil presupposes the existence of free will. All moral concepts, and evil is no exception, can only be properly ascribed to acts and persons if agents are autonomous and can choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded by external forces. To have a free will is to be subject to concepts of responsibility such as guilt and praise. We don’t ascribe moral accountability to creatures who are unable to understand moral principles or who are not in control of their actions. However, recent studies in psychology and neuroscience make the assumption that we have a free will highly questionable. If these studies are correct, we would need to give up, or radically rethink, our views about moral responsibility and with it the notion of moral evil. A world without freedom would still contain an enormous amount of suffering, but it would not be due to moral evil. Svendsen argues that despite these recent studies we have little reason to give up on the existence of moral evil. The scientific data is not convincing and lacks sufficient evidence to ask us to reject a notion of free will with its massive implications for ourselves, other bearers of responsibility, and the efficacy of the social and political institutions which are the bedrock of our civilization. Simona Forti (Chapter 23) explores the concept of power, yet another key philosophical issue that has enormous implications for our understanding of evil, specifically political evil. She reconstructs the philosophical and conceptual history of this relationship in order to clarify its hermeneutic horizon. Political evil has been standardly conceptualized in the twentieth century through a particular dominant paradigm. Forti argues that we need to question whether the conceptual assumptions upon which this paradigm was built are sound. And, more importantly, is this paradigm still relevant today or rendered obsolete with new pathologies within power relationships? Inspired by the work of Primo Levi, Forti contends that we need to think about the relationship between evil and power in terms of a so-called “gray zone”: a moral domain where strategies of power and counterpower, conformism and resistance, cooption and disobedience defy absolutist positions. Gideon Calder (Chapter 24) focuses on the issue of childhood, arguing that it raises specific questions about evil which demand attention in their own right. Understanding whether children can be evil or commit evil acts provides insights which help provide clarity about the notion of evil itself. Calder raises a number of interesting questions, among which are whether children can indeed be evil. If this is possible, then are the vilest kinds of human actions morally worse when committed by a child? And is this evil inclination something with which they were born, or did they learn it? While these questions might appear to be narrower, more 10


targeted versions of generalized themes in philosophical debates, Calder argues that they also offer insights which do not arise elsewhere. Consequently, any conception of evil which does not consider its applicability to children would be incomplete amid its wider scheme. Zachary J. Goldberg (Chapter 25) argues for a shift within the philosophy of evil literature, moving from time-slice synchronic accounts to a genuine diachronic understanding of evil. The moral history of the victim (e.g., having been an evildoer before) as well as the relation between victim and perpetrator (an asymmetrical power relation characterized by the exploitation of certain vulnerabilities) matters, a feature often overlooked by these synchronic accounts. According to Goldberg, “evil” as retribution to former evildoers does not amount to evil, precisely because of this broader diachronic perspective that incorporates the history of both perpetrator and victim. Although often taken as a simple point of reference in the literature on evil, Jonathan Leader Maynard (Chapter 26) reminds us of the complexity in explaining the evil of genocides and mass killings. He points out that the philosophical literature on evil and the research on genocides remain disconnected. Philosophers pay little attention to the recent research on genocides and mass atrocities, while scholars of genocide display little interest in philosophical discussions of evil. Maynard’s chapter seeks to address this lacuna in the literature and argues that empirical studies on why and how mass violence occurs carry important normative implications for the evaluation and interpretation of such violence and our understanding of the concept of evil. Finally, Michiel Leezenberg (Chapter 27) presents an overview and comparative analysis of some of the most influential accounts of evil in the Chinese, Indian, Islamic, and Judaic philosophical traditions. He seeks to illustrate that there are important areas of overlap as well as distinctive differences between and within these traditions. Leezenberg notes that there has been surprisingly little sustained attention to these comparative or intercultural philosophical views on evil by academic philosophers in the West. His chapter seeks to begin the process of addressing this gap by summarizing some of the important literature in non-Western traditions and thereby sets out the groundwork for future possible comparative analyses. The hope is that this overview will spark further interest in the reader to examine these non-Western traditions in more detail. There are, to be sure, many more historical figures and topics that could have usefully been added to this Handbook. None of the essays individually, nor even the entire collection of chapters in this book, can be expected to comprehensively cover all the important issues and debates on a topic as difficult and longstanding as the problem of evil. But every chapter in this Handbook does seek to offer the curious reader essential background information combined with a clear analysis of a particular interpretation or aspect of the problem of evil by engaging with the arguments and controversies they face. In particular, each chapter provides a new and fresh examination of the subject of evil and we hope this will provide the reader with a great deal of food for thought.

Notes 1 See Shafer-Landau, Russ. 2004. Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? New York: Oxford University Press. 2 See Baron-Cohen, S. 2011. Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty. London: Allen Lane. 3 For overview of causes for this genocide see Nikuze, D. 2014. “The Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda: Origins, Causes, Implementation, Consequences, and the Post-Genocide Era.” International Journal of Development and Sustainability 3(5): 1086–98. 4 “‘Reflective equilibrium’ is the end-point of a deliberative process in which we reflect on and revise our beliefs about an area of inquiry, moral or non-moral.” See Daniels, Norman. “Reflective Equilibrium.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta. https://plato.


Thomas Nys and Stephen de Wijze 5 See Russell 2006 for an overview and analysis of the evil revivalism versus evil skepticism debate. 6 See Pilkington 1993. 7 Quote attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky, Russian novelist (1821–1881). 8 See Delbanco 1995: 3. 9 We do examine a number of competing traditions from the Middle and Far East but, given that the recent wave of secular accounts emerge from a Western and largely Christian background and worldview, this is the primary focus of the Handbook.

References Delbanco, A. 1995. The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Pilkington, E. 1993. “Boys Guilty of Bulger Murder - Detention without Limit for ‘Unparalleled Evil’” The Guardian, November 25. Russell, L. 2006. “Evil-Revivalism Versus Evil-Skepticism.” Journal of Value Inquiry 40: 89–105.



Historical explorations of evil

1 PLATO ON EVIL Alina Scudieri

Plato’s contribution to philosophy can hardly be overstated: he invented it. He took a burgeoning activity which had been practiced for almost a century – the critical investigation of reality – and gave it a method (dialectics), a purpose (the search for truth about the most important matters for a human being), an epistemological status (wisdom, namely objective knowledge of reality, which can be accounted for and distinguished from lesser forms of knowledge), and a literary style (the dialogical form, which enables the reader to learn the proper way to achieve truth). Philosophy for Plato had a moral and normative role. By knowing the truth about the world we live in, we are able to make the correct life choices and, in the very common case for an Athenian citizen also having a public role, it is instrumental in creating a good political community. For Plato, only those who know what is really good for their fellow citizens can be good politicians. Finally, philosophy does not eschew the problem of the existence and role of the gods in the universe and therefore is the only activity which can safely claim to save our soul.1 A discourse on evil is part of the search for the truth about reality which characterizes philosophy. This is a metaphysical question, with cosmic import (it affects the entire universe): Plato believed that the universe had been molded by a supremely good god; from this premise he tried to explain the existence of imperfection and evil in the world. It also has a political side, because associated human life follows and imitates the rhythm of the universe, characterized by ages of divine supervision alternated by ages of human self-determination. The philosopher’s discovery enables him (or her, because Plato came to the unprecedented conclusion that women have the same intellectual abilities as men) to identify the problem and seek out a solution. This will always be a provisional solution because evil in the world consists of the imperfection that penetrates the universe and renders every human endeavor provisional. In this chapter, we will follow Plato’s investigation of the problem of evil, which is explored in different, albeit closely intertwined, realms. There is a metaphysical level, which includes the problem of theodicy, or how to reconcile the existence of God with the presence of evil in the world; then a political level, namely discord and civil strife in the city, which are the emblem of political evil and pave the way to tyranny (the worst political evil); and, finally, a moral level, connected to the problem of free will and the individual choice of good over evil (or vice versa). The key to understanding Plato’s notion of evil consists of realizing that evil is never a self-standing metaphysical principle. In the realms of metaphysics, 15

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ethics and politics the foundational principle is the good; evil is a derivative concept as it is conceived as absence of good, a kind of imperfection and decline determined by the necessary circumstances present in our universe.

Metaphysics: evil and the structure of the universe Human life and human action happen in a world which is not a human creation. It is the result of the ordering activity of a divine entity which Plato calls the Demiurge, or Craftsman, on the preexisting matter. Plato never arrived at a creationist view of the origin of the universe, for he believed that both the ideas – the forms of reality – and matter were eternal, and the Demiurge’s activity consisted in putting order in the disorderly original matter.2 This explains why ours is both the best possible world and an imperfect world:3 if a better world were possible, God would have formed it, because God is the epitome of everything that is good; on the other hand, the inevitable presence of matter in this world and the circumstances in which the Demiurge works make it imperfect. This is the lesson we learn from the Timaeus, whose account Plato’s describes as an eikos mythos, a “truthful discourse and not a fanciful myth.”4 Before examining Plato’s cosmology, we should recall two important facts. First, the origin and nature of the universe was an ancient and fundamental topic. One of the first literary documents of Greek civilization, Hesiod’s Theogony, was an account of the origin of the world presented as the successive appearance of gods in it.5 The heavenly bodies were conceived as gods and therefore the secular, empirical study of the sky and the planets was seen with suspicion in many quarters: this fact explains a decree the Athenian assembly passed in 432 bce, named after its proponent, the soothsayer Diopeithes, that forbade the study of the heavenly bodies.6 Second, astronomy was a very important topic for Plato, having a conspicuous role in the curriculum of the prospective philosopher in the Republic: astronomy forces our soul to look high in the sky and drives our soul up there (Rep. VII, 529a–b). Plato’s general view about the universe is summed up by a statement in the Gorgias: The wise men say, Callicles, that both heaven and earth, and gods and humans, are bound by communion, friendship, orderliness, temperance and justice; and that is why they call this whole an order [kosmos] and not a disorder [akosmia] or unrestraint [akolasia].7 In the Timaeus,8 through the speech of the Pythagorean philosopher Timaeus of Locri and in an evocative language, Plato distinguishes “what always is, without generation,” which can be apprehended by the intellect through reasoning, from “what always becomes, without ever being,” which is the object of opinion and sensation. The world belongs to the second kind of entities. This universe, the only and the best of all possible worlds (29a, 31b), is a “living being endowed with soul and reasoning,” molded by the Demiurge according to the image of the eternal gods (37c), endowed with a body and a soul: the cosmos is thus “a movable image of eternity” (37d). The god who ordered the universe was good and as such he was not envious of his creation. He “wanted that everything be like him as much as possible” (29e).9 However, like everything that has been generated, the world cannot be immortal or completely indestructible (41b); indeed, because of its bodily, material nature and the circumstances in which the Demiurge works, “necessity” (ananke) is present in it together with “intelligence” (nous): necessity is dominated by intelligence and persuaded to “conduct to the best end the most part of the things coming into existence” (48a). Plato is careful to emphasize in many passages that the ordering activity of the Demiurge never succeeds in completely 16

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overcoming necessity, also called “the errant cause” (48a), but only as much as possible.10 The universe molded by the Demiurge, being endowed with a body, must have a spatial location: this is a three-dimensional field, which Plato calls the “receptacle” (49a) and the “region” (chora 52a–d). This second definition leads us to believe that this concept identifies the necessary circumstances in which the Demiurge’s action takes place. The Demiurge is absolute goodness and the good is the principle of the universe; however, imperfection and evil are present in the world because of the “region,” the circumstances in which goodness operates. The Demiurge is like a carpenter who, while working on a piece of wood, finds a node which hampers his action: the execution is inevitably affected. Timaeus concludes that this world is thus “a perceptible god made in the image of the intelligible” (92c) but is imperfect, more specifically since “the production of non-uniformity is perpetually maintained, it brings about unceasingly, both now and for the future, the perpetual motion of these bodies [the bodies existing in the universe]” (58c). It is therefore because of a necessity intrinsic in the very nature of our universe that nothing in it can be perfect or remain forever and everything is subject to the law of change. Imperfection, disorder, and decline are the destiny of all bodily entities; they are inherent in the physis of the universe: this is the necessary evil in the universe and human beings have no way to intervene on this cosmic element. When we turn to the Politicus, we find a similar notion of evil, identified as imperfection and change due to the specific circumstances and arrangement of our universe. The central character of the Politicus, a philosopher described as a Stranger from Elea (the native city of Parmenides), reasserts the notion that “absolute and perpetual immutability is a property of only the most divine things of all, and body does not belong to this class” (269d).11 Change for bodies etc. is thus inborn in our universe, but this does not mean that it always has to be for the worse. In fact, from this dialogue we learn that our universe is characterized by two rotation movements: there is an age in which it is accompanied by God along its path, and there is another age in which it is left to itself and thus devoid of divine guidance.12 This is narrated in the form of a myth and the Stranger insists on this alternation between divine guidance and autarchy of the universe, and excludes other possibilities such as permanent self-rotation, contrary rotations effected by one god, or contrary rotations by two different gods (269e–270a). Plato wants to make clear that there is only one divine cause in the universe.13 There is only one god, who, being good, is the cause of everything that is good in the universe and is the creator of order in the kosmos.14 Plato rules out all explanations of evil and becoming in the universe which imply contradiction or imperfection in the divine nature as well as the existence ab aeterno of two antithetical principles of good and evil – as in Empedocles’ cosmology, for instance. This idea was also put forth in the Republic, where he has Socrates point out that God is the cause of all the goods in the universe, whereas one should look elsewhere for the cause of evil.15 The age in which the universe was under divine guidance is called the age of Chronos: in it everything was generated spontaneously, including human beings, who blossomed from the earth old and became younger through time, living their lives in a retrograde motion. All the parts of the universe were presided over by minor gods and human beings were assisted by demons (lesser gods); there were no political arrangements or private property with respect to material goods, women, and children (271d–e). As a consequence (Plato always conceived of private property as one of the roots of political evil), there were no wars or civil strife. We might surmise that human beings were happier then, but we should resist this conclusion. For the age of Chronos is characterized by the absence of eros, politics, and philosophy, which are fundamental ingredients of human happiness. Human beings then enjoyed a kind of natural, primitive happiness and they lived in communion with other animals. They were characterized by euetheia, a simple, spontaneous form of virtue which is unsuited and impossible in our time of complexity.16 17

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The myth of the Politicus does not transmit any sense of nostalgia, of longing for a bygone original condition of happiness and virtue. On the contrary, it shows that our epoch, the age of Zeus, is the real age of mankind, for in it we can enjoy everything that is typically human and enables human happiness – especially through philosophy. In the Politicus Plato describes the moment of change between the epoch of Chronos and that of Zeus and stresses the differences between them. What is constant, however, is divine care for the human race. Even in our age, when God is not at the helm of the universe, he never loses sight of his “creature” and prevents it from annihilation in “the boundless sea of dissimilarity” (273d). Even when the gods let the universe go without direct assistance, they still take care of human beings and give them “the so-called gifts of the gods” (274c) – fire and the arts. Plato maintains that it is because of an innate affection (pathos), the presence of a bodily element, that the universe experiences change: imperfection and decline are characteristic of our age and increase with estrangement from the origin. Plato uses the notions of “disharmony” and “dissimilarity” to depict the estrangement from the original paradeigma and from the sameness that is typical of what is eternal and divine; our age marks the prevalence of that principle of indeterminacy and multiplicity which Plato had identified in the Timaeus. Evil, to be conceived of as imperfection and change, is situated in this context of philosophy of history, characterized by the cyclical alternation of epochs with opposite features. The age of Chronos will return, but the real age of mankind is ours, the age of Zeus. We should note that, although change and decline characterize our age (because of the progressive estrangement from the origin), ours is not just an age of decadence. For instance, there is progress in the arts (a gift from the gods left to mankind for their improvement); the creation of political arrangements, the art of legislation, and, finally, the emergence of philosophy mark a progress from the original condition of mankind.17 Even if we do not go as far as Stanley Rosen in maintaining that our epoch is the real Golden Age,18 we notice that Plato’s description leaves the impression that divine guidance and the consequent absence of evil in the age of Chronos. This stripped the universe of what is most typically human: discrimination and choice between good and evil and, consequently, morality. Indeed, it is exactly because the gods have relinquished control of it that the world is open to human action. Ours is the age of human self-determination (274a) and herein lies all our hope for possible happiness. The Politicus myth is not conducive to resignation and the nostalgic remembrance of an age of perfection; on the contrary, it spurs us to action. Human beings, and especially the philosopher, are required to act to bring society back to its divine paradigm. We notice here Plato’s emphasis on the resemblance between the philosopher and God, a similitude which is present in many dialogues. This metaphysical structure of the universe is restated in Plato’s last work, the Laws. Two fundamental ideas in this dialogue have a special relevance to our topic. First, Plato here puts forth a depiction of the original condition of mankind which integrates that of the Politicus. In Book 3 of the Laws, the main character, described as an Athenian Stranger, gives an account of the evolution of mankind after a huge flood which is one of the catastrophic events which periodically affect the world and all but extinguish the human race. In Plato’s picture, the few survivors “must have been mostly herdsmen of the hills, scanty embers of the human race preserved somewhere on the mountain-tops” (III, 677b). They were unskilled (apeiroi) in the arts but in a condition of primeval simplicity and ingenuity (euetheia): lack of arts and instruments was matched by absence of wars and conflicts. We are told again that, since gold and silver were wanting in that primeval condition, wealth and poverty were absent too: as a consequence, war and civil strife, always the result of inequality, were also absent (III, 678e–679c). The naïve simplicity of the survivors made them believe that everything they were told was true, especially concerning the gods. The ability to distinguish lie from truth comes at a price in our age of moral complexity. 18

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In fact, the development of civilization brought about “all the things we possess now: cities and political regimes and arts and laws, and much wickedness – but much virtue as well” (III, 678a). It is evident that one cannot have virtue without the presence of evil in the world: it is choice, connected to wisdom and knowledge of good and evil, which makes morality possible. And in morality resides our true humanity which, in a somewhat paradoxical manner, Plato identifies with “becoming like a god”: the purpose of life for a human being consists of considering God as a target for imitation, endeavoring to use one’s mind to reach the truth about the most important things and acting upon that knowledge. In the Laws too, we get the message that this is the age of human action. In the age of Chronos, the god, who was a friend of humanity, set over us the better species of demons, who supervised us in a way that provided much ease both for them and for us. They provided peace and awe and good laws [eunomia] and justice without stint. Thus they made it so that the races of men were without civil strife [astasiasta], and happy. ( Laws IV, 713e) The lesson we should draw from this account is that “there can be no rest from evils and toils for those cities in which some mortal rules rather than a god.” We should strive to imitate by all means the life in the times of Chronos: man’s salvation and the survival of political arrangements is placed in the imitation of God and the philosopher is the person who made this the purpose of his/her life.19 The second fundamental notion in the Laws for our topic is Plato’s explicit confrontation with the problem of theodicy, the issue of the justice of God in a world rife with evil. We may recall that Plato invented the word theologia, which appears for the first time in Greek in Republic II, 379a: theology, the discourse about God, is also a discourse about divine justice and a search for an explanation for the presence of evil in the world. In the Politicus Plato had ruled out the possibility that God could be the cause of evil in the universe: imperfection and evil in the world were explained away as estrangement from the original divine guidance. In the Laws, a work in which the divine has a very prominent part, Plato seems to maintain the existence of two souls. One is good, “full of prudence and virtue,” and drives the universe on an ordered path, being thus responsible for the revolution of the heavenly bodies, which are themselves divine, while the other soul is evil and moves the universe “in a mad and disordered way.” It is responsible for the disorder and evil in the universe (X, 897c–e). This dualism never appears in any previous Platonic dialogue; indeed, it is explicitly ruled out. It is therefore very interesting that we seem to find it in Plato’s last work. It is as if, at the end of his life, Plato had realized that the magnitude of evil in the world requires a supernatural cause and explanation. We should, however, resist this conclusion. Plato’s views here are better considered as a merely counterfactual hypothesis: our world is ruled by a beneficent soul and evil in it is the result of the imperfection generated by the bodily part and of the necessary circumstances of the soul’s action.20 Never did Plato postulate evil as a self-standing principle in the universe; it always refers to goodness and the idea of the good. In this work, Plato is also intent in showing that there is a teleology in the universe, which it is not ruled by chance (Tyche) or necessity (Ananke), but this teleology leaves room for human action. In a very important and revealing passage, Plato states: Since we have agreed among ourselves that the heaven is full of many good things, but also of their opposites, and that there are more of those which are not good, such a battle, we say, is immortal and requires an extraordinary vigilance; and the gods and daemons are our allies, and we in turn are the possession of gods and daemons. 19

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And what corrupts us is injustice [adikia] and arrogance [hybris] together with folly [aphrosune]; and what preserves us is justice [dikaiosyne] and moderation [sophrosyne] together with wisdom [phronesis], these residing in the ensouled powers of the gods, though one can see clearly a small portion also dwelling here in us. (Laws X, 906a2-b3) We should note that Plato is here saying that there are more evil than good things in the universe. If we read these statements in light of the Politicus’s myth, we may argue that this situation only applies in our cosmic age, in which God is no longer at the helm of the universe. I hope that from this account it emerges clearly that Plato labored throughout his life with finding an overarching explanation to the existence of evil in the world. In an intellectual career which spanned over 50 years and saw many revisions of important concepts, Plato never conceptualized evil as a self-standing ontological principle of reality: he always conceived it as derivative from the good. This applies also to Plato’s latest metaphysical views, encapsulated in the so-called “unwritten doctrines,” which have been the object of heated scholarly dispute in the last two centuries.21 Since their existence is testified by many ancient authors, including Plato’s pupil Aristotle, who mentions them nine times (once using the explicit expression “as Plato says in the so-called unwritten doctrines”),22 I think the controversy should be confined to the exact significance of the doctrine, while its existence should be accepted. It seems that in his final years Plato had identified two metaphysical principles as constitutive of reality: the One and the Indefinite Dyad, the former being the principle of good and the latter that of evil. Again, it is important to stress that Plato’s emphasis is on the Good, identified with the One, the principle of unity, which makes each thing determinate. Evil is derivative; it is the principle of multiplicity, which ensues from the dissolution of unity and makes things indeterminate.

Evil in politics: civil strife and tyranny The metaphysical frame that we have just depicted represents the background for human agency in the universe. Our epoch, the age of Zeus, is a time for human action because the gods have relinquished their control over the universe. We cannot expect the gods to act in this age, although they still care for human beings and, most important of all, by knowing their existence we can use them as a standard for action. Politics is a very important sphere of human action because it is responsible for preparing the conditions for human flourishing; however, it is not the most important sphere because Plato is adamant in maintaining that only the philosophical life can give the greatest and purest pleasures to human beings. This premise would already have appeared surprising, almost shocking, to most of Plato’s contemporaries. For it was a common assumption for ancient Greek citizens, especially if they lived in a democracy, that men realized their most typical potentialities in the public realm, namely by participating in the political activity of their city. This is what was expected of them; philosophy, on the contrary, was seen as an extravagant, somewhat weird activity.23 Beside the unconventional premise, Plato’s political proposal was stunning and incredibly bold, even for his contemporaries endowed with a strong political imagination. To put it in one word, it amounted to nothing less than a complete overturn of the ordinary meaning of “politics.” Especially in democracy, the political realm was typically conceived as something common (koinon): a common space in which existed a law (nomos) that applied to everyone. It was a realm of equality before the law (isonomia), even though there existed inequalities in wealth, social standing, and so on. This ideal of equality was


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translated into the idea of equal participation of all (free, male, adult) citizens to the political process: anyone who wished could wake up at the crack of dawn and participate in the works of the Assembly, or could try to be appointed to one of the many offices in Athens. Instead, Plato’s vision of the perfect city conspicuously features the absence of a gathering place for the people and hence of the Assembly: general political participation is not conducive to the best decisions, for people who lack knowledge will not give good advice; all public matters are instead managed by those who know – the philosophers. The rule of philosophers, the union of knowledge and power, is the best political arrangement. The reason is that it truly pursues the common good; all citizens are able to reach a level of happiness which is adequate and corresponds to their nature. Conversely, all other political regimes are wrong because they are characterized by the rule of one part of the population for its sole advantage. Finally, the absolute rule of someone who lacks political science is the worst political regime because no one benefits from it but the sole ruler: enter the tyrant (and Plato will argue that not even the tyrant benefits from it). Evil in politics is thus to be identified with ignorance in the rulers, which brings about civil strife and misery for everyone. In his political masterpiece, the Republic, Plato embarks on the search for the best political arrangement built on the truth, which he understands as based on the reality of human nature. Plato’s challenge is to design a city where all citizens, presupposed as characterized by different drives, flourish and realize their image of happiness. The main feature of this city – called Kallipolis, “the beautiful city” – is its unity, its being “one” notwithstanding the diversity of its citizens. Plato deems this quality of unity to be present only in the best political arrangement; all other existing regimes are characterized by the rule of one class over, and against, the other: common people against aristocrats, rich against poor, the tyrant against all. This is the picture painted by the sophist Thrasymachus in Republic I, which represents the foundation for the subsequent search for the best regime. It is based on the observation of the reality of actual regimes in Greek cities and Thrasymachus offers his famous statement that “justice is the advantage of the stronger” (Rep. I, 338c–339a), which is inevitably the viewpoint of the established government. In every political arrangement the ruling class makes laws to its own advantage, regardless of the number of the rulers: democracy makes laws which favor the people, oligarchy for the noble and wealthy and the tyrant for himself and his family. This situation, which is present in all cities, is like an ailment for the body politic: stasis, civil strife, which can issue in outright war, is the emblem of evil in politics. In all existing political arrangements, characterized by stasis, there is no pursuit of the common good: rulers pursue what they believe is good for their faction to the detriment of the rest of the city. We must note here that, by accepting Thrasymachus’ conclusion, Plato was not exaggerating his own case. He knew Thucydides’ depiction of the horrors caused by civil strife in Corcyra and was certainly aware of the oath that the oligarchs pronounced, in which they swore to hate the demos and hurt it with all their forces.24 Factional strife, typically between the oligarchs and the democrats, if not plain civil war, was a typical feature of Greek cities in Plato’s time. It is from this observation that the entire project of the Republic, the search for the best regime, starts. In the Republic Plato puts forth a famous analogy between the city and the human soul,25 or, more specifically, between specific political regimes and the arrangement of the parts of the soul. He observes that every city is composed of people who are diverse, being characterized by different images of happiness: these fall into three main headings. Most people love material pleasures and place their happiness in wealth, owning beautiful houses, enjoying special food and expensive wine, and so on. Some others, such as warriors and athletes, are driven by love of honor and glory and see their happiness in the recognition of their merits and achievements.


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Finally, a few love the immaterial pleasure which comes with the search for the truth about the most important things for a human being. This kind of intellectual activity is unique in making human beings transcend their limits as humans: they approximate themselves to God when they use their reason. Plato explains the existence of these three strata (or, less correctly, classes) in the city by the prevalence of one part over the others in the individual soul of the citizens: the soul itself must therefore be conceived as tripartite.26 One part (the biggest) is characterized by love of gain and material possessions (philokerdos); another by love of victory, glory, and recognition (philonikon, philotimos); the third part is distinguished by love of wisdom and the incessant search for knowledge (philosophos). The prevalence of one of these parts, that is, the prevalence of a specific kind of desires, is responsible for what a human being is: a farmer, a trader, or anyone engaged in ordinary jobs; a soldier, a public man of some sort, or an athlete; finally a philosopher. Care of the soul is thus an all-important task and the Republic is, among other things, an extraordinary educational project aimed at creating citizens endowed with well-balanced souls. The sound soul is characterized by its “unity,” by the fact that the three elements in it are harmoniously balanced by moderation (sophrosyne) and the rational part is in charge. And, Plato adds, “he who has a good soul is good” (Rep. III, 409c). On the political level this translates into the view that those who made the search for knowledge the purpose of their lives – the philosophers – are the only persons entitled to rule the city, because they know what is really good for their fellow countrymen. Plato restates the value of truth in politics, which had been denied by the Sophists. In politics, the only good political arrangement is that in which power and knowledge coincide. Only in such a regime do the rulers pursue the common good of the city. In all the other regimes there exists the same dynamic of oppressor and oppressed, of a part ruling against another part well depicted by Thrasymachus. This ideal of union of knowledge and power can be implemented in two different ways. Either the true philosophers become rulers of a city, going against their natural attitude to devote themselves only to theoretical activity,27 or, if “by a divine inspiration” the children of existing kings and dynasts were taken by true love of philosophy, they would rule according to knowledge and pursue the common good.28 Plato is unhesitant in stating more than once that such an enterprise is difficult but not impossible – a sign that he conceived of his political works as possessing a practical nature, being both a blueprint of the best regime and a persuasive argument about the reasons for its implementation.29 The features of the government of the philosophers in Plato’s perfect city are so famous that I will concentrate only on a few points which are vital for my argument. First, it is impossible to overemphasize Plato’s bold imagination and his daring in making such a proposal, especially considering its details. Not only were the philosophers typically considered useless or even dangerous people when it came to politics, but Plato dares to argue for equality of men and women in the capacity to rule: something unprecedented, which was implemented in Western society only in the twentieth century ad. Underlying this shocking proposal is Plato’s conviction that women are capable to be virtuous in all fields just like men because they share the same soul structure. Virtue and political capacity are not differentiated or limited by gender. For a contrast, it is barely necessary to recall that Plato’s most brilliant student – Aristotle – maintained in all earnest that women are defective men because they lack deliberative capacity.30 Second, Plato believed that through laws and a very specific educational system the philosophers would be able to select the best ruling class and to enable all citizens to be happy according to their image of happiness. They would create harmony and political friendship in the city, instilling moderation (sophrosyne) in all citizens, which would preserve the unity of the city. The rule of reason is conducive to all political goods. Conversely, evil in politics is to be identified with what dissolves the political unity of the city and this is ignorance which creates factional strife 22

Plato on evil

(stasis), which, in turn, brings disunion and the pursuit or private interest. Plato was persuaded that difference in wealth was the source of many political evils and civil unrest; he therefore argued that the ruling class of philosophers should hold nothing privately and should have everything in common: not only material goods such as money and houses but also women, men, and children. Factional strife arises when the rulers cease to care for the common good and start thinking in terms of “mine” and “yours”; then, harmony in the city ends and “dissimilarity and anomaly” enter the city, and with them civil strife (Rep. VIII, 547a–b). With an evocative image, Plato states that, when private property creeps even into the best regime, the city becomes divided; namely, there arises a city of the rich and a city of the poor in constant mutual war.31 There follows a progressive decline in the form of government, which gives rise to progressively worse regimes: a mixed government which Plato calls “timocracy” (it is mixed because the rulers are torn between philosophical pursuits, desire for honor and material interests), followed by oligarchy, democracy, and finally tyranny, the worst possible form of government. Plato states clearly (see e.g. Rep. VIII, 552e) that the decline in the political regime is caused by ignorance, bad education, and the form of government. This decline is accompanied by a parallel decrease in the quality of the soul of the citizens: this shows that Plato had already reached the conclusion that the quality of the political regime molds the character of its citizens; hence the importance of creating a good form of government, which could mold good citizens. Tyranny is caused by stasis and is the emblem of evil in politics and, as such, is worth a closer examination. When Plato wrote about tyranny and the tyrant in the Republic, there had been a debate about this form of government in Greece for at least 150 years. The tyrant emerged as an ambiguous figure: on the one hand, he was despised and considered the worst possible ruler, often compared to a wolf and considered the enemy of the political community.32 On the other hand, because of the enormous and absolute power he held, the tyrant was seen as a demigod, the most blessed human being because he could do whatever he so wished. This image, evidently based on a sentiment existing also in democratic Athens, is present also in Plato. Polus and Callicles in the Gorgias and Thrasymachus in the Republic take the tyrant to be the most powerful and hence happiest human being. Plato’s first concern is therefore to show to his readers that, far from being the most powerful and happiest human being, the tyrant lives a miserable life of solitude: devoid of real friends, surrounded by flatterers, forced to always have bodyguards to prevent assassination attempts, unable to leave his palace for fear that some of his citizens try to kill him. The tyrant cannot do the things that ordinary citizens can do, such as briefly leaving the country. In an argumentative tour de force, Plato succeeded in making a persuasive case for a view that at first sight would have appeared very counterintuitive to his readers. The soul of the tyrant, argues Plato, is in the worst possible turmoil and discord because the worst desires dominate it and therefore the tyrant cannot do what is really good. In contrast, the well-ordered soul of the philosopher makes him the happiest of all human beings. Tyranny is a serious problem for the tyrant as it is for his subjects. Another important feature of Plato’s portrait of the tyrant is his view that the most tremendous and basest appetites characterize the tyrant’s soul. Eros controls the soul in its absolute anarchy just like the tyrant rules the city, infringing on any laws (Rep. IX, 575a). Plato was thus persuaded that someone is a tyrant first in his soul and then also publicly, especially if he has the chance to grab absolute power. Tyranny is first an ailment of the soul and then may become a political evil. Finally, it is worth asking the following questions: Is this Plato’s final word on tyranny: is it the last step and conclusion of the decline of the forms of government? Is tyranny irredeemable and the tyrant an inevitably lost soul? I am inclined to think this is not the case and I wish to point to three pieces of evidence. First, Plato shows clearly that he is not averse to 23

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monarchy per se: in the Republic and in the Politicus he maintains that a king endowed with political science – a “philosopher-king” – is the best possible ruler. Certainly, the philosopherking is the total opposite of the tyrant because his knowledge of political science enables him to pursue the common good of the city. This consideration brings about the possibility of “reeducating” the tyrant’s soul and of reforming his city. As we have seen, there is ample evidence in his dialogues and letters that Plato not only thought that this was a possibility but also tried to implement his project by visiting (three times) the tyrants of Syracuse. That this is not just mere speculation is shown by a comment we find in Aristotle’s Politics. In one of his many critical remarks, he states that Plato never explains whether tyrannies change and, if they do, why they do so or what constitutes this change. The reason of this omission is that any explanation would have been difficult. The matter cannot be settled along the lines of his argument; for on those lines a tyranny would have to change back into the first and ideal constitution, in order to maintain continuity in the revolving cycle of change.33 The quote appears obscure to us because nowhere in the Republic (or elsewhere for that matter) does Plato say anything like that. Aristotle, who had been a pupil of Plato’s for 19 years in the Academy, cannot be taken as an uninformed witness. It is likely that he knew something that is not written anywhere in the Republic or in any Platonic dialogue. Whether this was Aristotle’s own elaboration or a development in Plato’s thought that he disclosed only orally to his pupils we do not know. Aristotle’s wording makes me inclined to think that this was an interpretation of the theory of the forms of government well known in the Academy. Plato seems then to have arrived at a vision, popularized by Polybius, namely the anakyklosis or cyclical theory of constitutions. In any case, Aristotle’s remark supports the view that Plato thought tyranny was reformable. From Plato’s works we can infer that he thought that the tyrant was not an ordinary man, that he was characterized by a superior intellectual endowment but was led astray by a bad education (see Rep. IX). Examples of actual tyrants such as Dionysius the Elder or potential tyrants such as Alcibiades testify to this. In addition, Plato was clearly persuaded that approaching a philosophically promising young tyrant was a quick and expedient way to implement his view of the best regime, because of the tyrant’s enormous power and lack of accountability: for the philosopher, tyranny could be a shortcut to Kallipolis. Plato’s visits to the tyrants of Syracuse and his intentions there – as they emerge from the Seventh Letter and from Plutarch’s Life of Dion – testify to his seriousness. Evidently Plato was persuaded that philosophy had the ability to “rearrange” the elements in the soul of the tyrant, to place reason in charge and therefore direct his extraordinary eros toward philosophy and the search for knowledge instead of the basest desires. This operation of rearrangement would have amounted to sort of a healing of the sick tyrannical soul and the philosopher thus emerges as a physician of the soul: from absolute evil goodness emerges; from the worst form of government, the best is created.34 This conclusion shows Plato’s optimism regarding the power of philosophy and the possibility that goodness triumphs over evil.

The education of desire: morality, virtue and vice Our treatment of Plato’s ethics must be prefaced by an observation. In ethics, Plato was just as revolutionary as he was in politics, but this fact is not so easy to appreciate. The best example is again in the Republic. In Book 1, the discussion about justice appropriately starts with


Plato on evil

two definitions which were traditional in Greek society. They are met by Socrates’ criticism and immediately followed by Thrasymachus’ trenchant statement that “justice is the advantage of the stronger.” Plato’s plan is evident: he wants to show how old-fashioned the traditional definitions are, and the consequent bewilderment of the young generations faced by the sharp criticism of the Sophists. Cephalus, the host of the conversation, describes justice as telling the truth and returning what one has received. Socrates refutes this definition with an easy counterexample: would it be just to return a sword one has borrowed to a person who in the meantime has gone insane and could kill with it? (Rep. I, 331a–d). Cephalus leaves the scene and his son Polemarchus enters the debate, trying to rephrase and defend his father’s definition (an act of filial piety and thus of justice). Polemarchus maintains that what his father meant by “returning what one has received” was that it is just to “help friends and harm enemies” (Rep. I, 332a–c). Socrates, however, retorts that he believes that the just person never harms anyone, not even their enemies (Rep. I, 335d). He was thus persuaded that wrongdoing transforms a good into an evil person and therefore doing injustice should be avoided in any case. It is difficult to realize how revolutionary this statement sounded to Plato’s contemporaries. It was a matter-of-fact, obvious truth for a Greek citizen, a staple of contemporary morality: one only has to look at any early Greek poet, starting with Homer, or at Sophocles, a contemporary of Socrates, whose works are built around the principle that it is just to help friends and to harm enemies.35 In addition, the same view is present in most subsequent classical authors. Platonic morality is founded on the famous Socratic view according to which no one does evil deeds knowingly: evil is the result of ignorance, of not knowing what is good. Socrates believed that, if someone had knowledge of what is good and evil, they would inevitably act on that knowledge and choose what is good. A person who knows that drinking too much alcohol will cause a deadly disease would only continue to binge drink if they were crazy. For Socrates, morality was a matter of knowledge and consistency. Plato accepted this Socratic picture of morality and supported it in many dialogues: it always remained the foundation for his own view of morality. However, he realized that things are more complicated and had the intellectual honesty to tackle the problem and go beyond Socrates’ teaching. Two dialogues, the Gorgias and the Republic, are key to understanding Plato’s views here. In the former, Plato realizes the limits of the Socratic doctrine: the final skirmish between Socrates and Callicles, who admits to having been defeated by Socrates because he does not have any more counterargument, is revealing. Callicles tells Socrates that he has been defeated but not persuaded by his arguments and therefore refuses to continue his dialogue with Socrates. We may imagine that he will go on living his life as before, considering the defeat in argument a mishap in his career and without learning anything from it. Plato shows here he has appreciated the Sophists’ lesson to the extent that “truth” (whatever this word may mean) must be persuasive in order to influence people’s conduct. Socrates’ ethical intellectualism is helpless in the face of this lesson. Very significantly, Plato chooses to conclude the dialogue with a myth about the destiny of our soul in the afterlife. This myth reveals that wrongdoing harms the soul even if this does not show externally. But the gods know this as they see the naked soul without the external pomp, revealing the scars of all the wrongdoings committed. It is revealing that Plato’s realization of the shortcomings of Socrates’ teaching is accompanied by a myth, having the purpose to disclose a truth that cannot be argued rationally. It is the admission of the defeat of reason but Plato then starts searching for a solution, which he outlines in the Republic. Building upon his awareness of the limits of Socratic ethics but wishing to retain the essential idea behind it (the role of reason in morality), Plato in the Republic identifies two problems


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which make Socrates’ depiction of morality more complicated. This is revealed in the episode of Leontius in Book 4. Leontius, an Athenian citizen, was ascending from the harbor to the city when he: noticed some corpses lying on the ground with the executioner standing by them. He wanted to go and look at them, and yet at the same time held himself back in disgust. For a time he struggled with himself and covered his eyes, but at last his desire [epithymia] got the better of him and he ran up to the corpses, opening his eyes wide and saying to them, “There you are, curse you – a lovely sight. Have a real good look!” (Rep. IV, 439e–440a) Plato shows here he has identified the problem of “inner conflict” as well as that of the “weakness of the will,” to which he offers a remarkable solution. In Book 4 he gives a very detailed account of the tripartite human soul and inner conflict is explained as civil strife involving the three parts: desire, being the biggest part (Rep. IV, 442a; cf. 429a), overwhelms reason unless the latter is aided and supported by the spirited part (thymos). Plato uses a political metaphor and speaks of a “civil strife” (stasis) among the parts; just like the body politic is ailing when is plagued by civil strife, so the soul is sick when it is rife with discord. There is thus a “healthy” condition of the soul, when reason, supported by the spirited part, controls desire, and a sick one, when the parts conflict with each other and the basest desires inevitably get the upper hand. The education of the spirited part is thus a fundamental component of the creation of a wholesome citizen, because a poor upbringing will favor the appetitive part (Rep. IV, 441a–e).36 With deliberate repetition Plato uses medical vocabulary in conjunction with a political vocabulary to describe the parallel situation of the city and the soul. They are both “healthy, sound, whole” when reason is in control and every part does its task. Justice consists of the harmonic order of the parts as well as of the classes, when each does its proper business. Injustice, on the contrary, consists of the strife among the parts of the soul which dissolves its unity. One final point. Plato repeatedly states that there is an arrangement of the parts of the soul (and hence of the city) which is “according to nature.” To create justice means establishing a natural (kata physin) relation of control and subordination among the constituents of the soul. “Virtue seems therefore to be a kind of health or beauty or fitness of the soul; and vice a kind of illness or deformity or weakness” (Rep. IV, 444d–e). This is Plato’s conclusion about morality: to be just and virtuous is something natural: it is according to nature. Unfortunately, human beings have a natural spontaneous morality, which is seriously compromised by doing evil deeds. This is confirmed by the discussion of the immortality of the soul in Book 10 of the Republic. There Socrates argues that the soul is immortal and that its true (aletheia), original (archaia) nature is characterized by a “kinship with the divine and immortal and eternal” and by “love of wisdom” (philosophia). This is thus the natural condition of the soul but injustice and other vices such as indiscipline, cowardice, and ignorance make it evil and weaken it, severing it from the body.37 Plato decided to reinforce this argument with a myth, which he places at the end of the Republic, concerning the destiny of our soul in the afterlife. Er, a soldier killed in battle and who resurrected after 12 days, was able to narrate what he saw in the netherworld: he reported that the soul, being immortal, has the opportunity to choose a new body and therefore a new life. In that choice “lies the greatest danger” because the soul can make a correct choice only if it is able to see beyond the appearances of the new life. For instance, the first soul asked to choose grabbed the life of a tyrant, not knowing the terrible evils that lay behind it. Only if we have practiced philosophy in our previous life can we be sure to make a correct choice in the afterlife (Rep. X, 618c–620a). 26

Plato on evil

Philosophy thus emerges as a way of life, the only life choice which can enable us to choose what is good and avoid what is evil in this world; and to make the correct choice in the afterlife.38 Enabling us to see what is true beyond the appearances, philosophy is the only activity which makes human beings the closest approximation to complete goodness and knowledge, namely God.

Notes 1 On Plato’s view of philosophy see Vegetti 2003. 2 On Plato’s Demiurge and his ordering action see Sedley 2008. Sedley states right from the Preface that ancient Greek philosophers never questioned the fact that even a divine creator would have to use preexisting materials (xvii). 3 This is a view that Leibniz will later adopt and develop with his notion of “The best of all possible worlds” in his theodicy. See Leibniz 1710; a good modern translation can be found in Leibniz 1989. 4 Plato’s words can also be translated as “a likely account”: Timaeus 26c; cf. 29d and 68d. On this play on words see Burnyeat 2009. On the role of myth in Plato’s works see Morgan 2004: 271–7 on the notion of “likely account.” Also Collobert, Destrée, and Gonzalez 2012. 5 On Plato’s borrowings from Hesiod see the essays in Boys-Stones-Haubold 2010. 6 We gather this information from Plutarch, Life of Pericles, 32, 1: Aspasia, Pericles’ mistress, was accused of impiety (asebeia) and “Diopeithes brought in a bill providing for the public impeachment of such as did not believe in gods, or who taught doctrines regarding the heavens.” These circumstances also explain the many trials for impiety against sophists and natural philosophers in the fifth century. 7 Plato, Gorgias 507e–508a. 8 An excellent introduction to this dialogue can be found in the entry “Plato’s Timaeus” by Zeyl and Sattler in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: 9 An excellent treatment of the Demiurge can be found in Carone 2005. Carone believes that the mind of God should be conceived as immanent to the universe and therefore the Demiurge should not be seen as a separate god. 10 Necessity had already been correctly identified with “the indeterminate, the inconstant, the anomalous” by Grote 1865: III: 249. Later Grote adds that “by Necessity (as has been said before) Plato means random, indeterminate, chaotic, pre-existent, spontaneity of movement or force” (266). Necessity thus represents lack of order and the opposite of finalism. See also Cornford 1937 and. Morrow 1950. 11 Politicus 269d. See also Republic VII, 530a–b, where Socrates maintains that the relation between day and night, and between the heavenly bodies, cannot be immutable and invariable because these entities are bodily and visible. In that passage too, Socrates speaks of the “Demiurge of heaven.” On the role of astronomy in Plato see Franco Repellini 1989. 12 Some recent interpreters have maintained the existence of three ages in the Statesman myth. See Brisson 1995, who restates the opinion expressed in Brisson 1974. See also Rowe 1995; Saxonhouse 1992: 129. 13 See Cherniss 1954. 14 The situation seems apparently different in Laws X, 897c, where Plato speaks of a good soul which possesses prudence and virtue and a bad soul: the one drives the universe on an ordered path; the other moves it in a mad and disordered way. Cf. X, 904a for a further discussion. 15 See Plato, Republic II, 379c. 16 On euetheia see Giorgini 2016. 17 For a different opinion see Cropsey 1995. Cropsey describes the human condition in our age “abandoned by the god” as a “crepuscular scene” (134). 18 “ours is the golden age, at it is evident from the presence of logos and philosophy. Philosophy is the sister of decadence. The rejuvenative function of the counternormal epoch is inseparable from a temporary suspension of our humanity; it is a period of forgetting and silence”: Rosen 1995: 61. 19 On this notion of imitation of God see Sedley 1997; Armstrong 2004. 20 Carone strongly argues for this conclusion (175–6). 21 For an introduction to the debate see the monographic issue of the journal Methexis 6 (1993). For a collection of the evidence in favor of an “esoteric” interpretation of Plato see Kraemer 1990. For a judicious evaluation of the problem as well as an excellent bibliography see Vegetti 1994. Ross 1951, Chapter 9, is still one of the most persuasive and well-balanced positions on the topic. 22 See Aristotle, Physics IV.


Alina Scudieri 23 See Ober-Hedrick 1996. This is confirmed by Plato himself in the Seventh Letter and in many passages in the dialogues, e.g., Gorgias; Republic. On this view of political participation see the classic Arendt 1958. 24 Thucydides III, 80–84: “Then, with the ordinary conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend even where law exists, showed itself proudly in its true colours, as something incapable of controlling passion, insubordinate to the idea of justice, the enemy to anything superior to itself ” (III, 84 in Thucydides 1972). 25 For an introduction see Ferrari 2003. 26 On the intricacies of Plato’s image of the tripartite soul see Cooper 1984. Many fine observations in Montoneri 2014. 27 Plato lays much emphasis on the fact that the philosophers do not aspire to worldly power and must be “forced,” by a mixture of persuasion and compulsion, to redescend into the cave of worldly existence. Accordingly, this fact guarantees that the philosophers will be uninterested in keeping their power and will perform only what they take to be a service to the community. See Republic VII, 519e–521b. 28 Plato, Republic VI, 499b–d; cf. VI, 487e and VII, 540d. See also Laws IV, 709a–c, where the Athenian Stranger maintains that the easiest and fastest way to implement the best regime consists in finding a city ruled by “a young tyrant, endowed with good memory, fast in learning, courageous and magnanimous by nature,” whose soul possesses moderation and all the parts of virtue. 29 See, for instance, Plato, Republic VI, 499d;VII, 540d. See also the important final lines of Book 9. 30 Aristotle, Politics I, 1254 b13–4; cf. I, 1260a11. 31 On factional strife as the cause of decline of even the best political arrangement see Plato, Republic VIII, 545d. Plato opted for giving a mythical, evocative account of the origin of decline but the sense is clear: he speaks of lysis, “dissolution,” of the unity of the city:VIII, 546a. On the “two cities” see VIII, 551d. 32 See Newell 2013; Giorgini 1993; Lanza 1979. 33 Aristotle, Politics V 12, 1316a. 34 I agree with the conclusions of Giorgini 2009. 35 See Whitlock Blundell 1989, especially Chapter 2. Note that this is also the view of Xenophon’s Socrates as stated in Memorabilia 4, 5, 10. 36 On the education of the spirited part see the insightful see Newell 2000. 37 Plato, Republic X, 608d–612a. 38 On the conclusion of the Republic, and for a general appreciation of the entire work, see the classic Voegelin 1957: vol. 3. On the notion of philosophy as the choice of a life see Hadot 1995.

References Arendt, H. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Armstrong, J.A. 2004. “After the Ascent: Plato on Becoming Like a God.” In Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 26: 171–83. Boys-Stones, G.R., and Haubold, J.H., eds. 2010. Plato and Hesiod. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Brisson, L. 1974. Le Meme et l’Autre dans la structure ontologique du “Timée” de Platon. Paris: Klincksieck. Brisson, L. 1995. “Interprétation du mythe du Politique.” In Reading the Statesman, edited by C.J. Rowe. Sankt Augustin: Akademia Verlag: 349–363 Burnyeat, M.F. 2009. “Eikos muthos.” In Plato’s Myths, edited by C. Partenie, 167–86. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Carone, G.R. 2005. Plato’s Cosmology and Its Ethical Dimensions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cherniss, H. 1954. “The Sources of Evil According to Plato.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 98: 23–30. Collobert, C., P. Destrée, and F.J. Gonzalez, eds. 2012. Plato and Myth. Leiden and Boston, MA: Brill. Cooper, J.M. 1984. “Plato’s Theory of Human Motivation.” History of Philosophy Quarterly 1: 3–21. Cornford, F.M. 1937. Plato’s Cosmology. London: Kegan Paul. Cropsey, J. 1995. Plato’s World. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Ferrari, G.R.F. 2003. City and Soul in Plato’s Republic. Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag. Franco Repellini, F. 1989. “Platone e la salvezza dei fenomeni.” Rivista di Storia della Filosofia 44: 419–42. Giorgini, G. 1993. La città e il tiranno. Milan: Giuffrè. Giorgini, G. 2009. “Plato and the Ailing Soul of the Tyrant.” In Le philosophe, le roi, le tyran, edited by S. Gastaldi and J-F. Pradeau, 111–127. Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag.


Plato on evil Giorgini, G. 2016. “Progress or Regress? Plato’s Account of the Beginnings of Mankind.” In Nous, Polis, Nomos. Festschrift Francisco L. Lisi, edited by A. Havlicek, Ch. Horn, and J. Jinek, 147–62. Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag. Grote, G. 1865. Plato and the Other Companions of Sokrates. London: John Murray, 3 vols. Hadot, P. 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life. Oxford: Blackwell. Kraemer, H.J. 1990. Plato and the Foundations of Metaphysics: A Work on the Theory of the Principles and Unwritten Doctrines of Plato with a Collection of the Fundamental Documents. New York: SUNY Press. Lanza, D. 1979. Il tiranno e il suo pubblico. Turin: Einaudi. Leibniz, G.W. 1710. Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme et l’origine du mal. Amsterdam: Troyel. Leibniz, G.W. 1989. Philosophical Essays, translated by R. Ariew and D. Garber. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett. Montoneri, L. 2014. Il problema del male nella filosofia di Platone. Forlì: Victrix. Morgan, K. 2004. Myth and Philosophy from the Presocratics to Plato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Morrow, G.R. 1950. “Necessity and Persuasion in Plato’s Timaeus.” Philosophical Review 52: 147–163; reprinted in Allen, R.E. 1965. Studies in Plato’s Metaphysics. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul: 421–38. Newell, W.R. 2000. Ruling Passion. The Erotics of Statecraft in Platonic Political Philosophy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. Newell, W.R. 2013. Tyranny. A New Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Ober, J. and Hedrick, C., eds. 1996. Demokratia. A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Rosen, S. 1995. Plato’s Statesman. The Web of Politics. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press. Ross, W.D. 1951. Plato’s Theory of Ideas. Oxford: Clarendon. Rowe, C.W. 1995. Plato. Statesman. Warminster: Aris & Phillips. Saxonhouse, A. W. 1992. Fear of Diversity. The Birth of Political Science in Ancient Greek Thought. Chicago, IL, and London: University of Chicago Press. Sedley, D. 1997. “Becoming Like a God in the Timaeus and Aristotle.” In Interpreting the Timaeus – Critias, edited by T. Calvo and L. Brisson, 327–39. Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag. Sedley, D. 2008. Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, and London: University of California Press. Thucydides. 1972. History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner. London: Penguin. Vegetti, M. 1994. “Cronache platoniche.” Rivista di Filosofia 85: 109–29. Vegetti, M. 2003. Quindici lezioni su Platone. Turin: Einaudi. Voegelin, E. 1957. Order and History. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana University Press. Whitlock Blundell, M. 1989. Helping Friends and Harming Enemies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Honored as Saint Augustine by Catholics, Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was bishop for about 35 years of the town of Hippo Regius in Roman Africa (a province consisting mostly of what we would now call Algeria). He is the most important Church father to write in Latin, which makes him the most influential Christian theologian in the West. The Church fathers were the formative Christian intellectuals of the second through the fifth centuries. They were the first Gentile writers who deeply engaged Jewish texts such as the New Testament (written almost entirely by Jews), and the Old Testament (the Christian name for the Hebrew Bible), which they accepted as holy Scripture, and which they understood and taught in the context of classical education, rhetoric, and philosophy. As the foremost Latin Church father, Augustine’s eloquent, subtle and resourceful interpretation of scriptural teaching became the matrix of Christian thinking for well over a thousand years in Western Europe. His writings had an authority second only to the Bible, and became the gold standard for theological orthodoxy among medieval Catholics such as Anselm and Aquinas, as well as early Protestants such as Luther and Calvin. Augustine’s thoughts on evil are scattered unsystematically across an enormous body of writings. The citations below are meant to point the reader to key passages in some of his most important and accessible works.

A two-sided view In Augustine’s view evil has no real being, yet it is pervasive and powerful. There is thus a two-sidedness to his thinking that must be understood. C.S. Lewis speaks for the one side when he says, “badness is only spoiled goodness” (Lewis 1960: 49) and Martin Luther speaks for the other when he insists that all humanity is in bondage to sin (Luther 1969). Augustine can therefore be called both an ontological optimist and a moral pessimist. Ontologically his teaching is, quite starkly, that “whatever things exist are good” (Confessions 7: 12.18),1 because God created all things and made nothing evil. Morally, however, the fall of Adam initiated a reign of sin and death that has corrupted all his descendants. This two-sided view comes together when Augustine speaks of human nature itself as a good thing that is corrupted or vitiated, a natura vitiata (Marriage and Desire 2: 3.9; Nature and Grace 39.46; cf. On Free Choice of the Will 3: 13.38).2 In Augustine everything that exists is good, but everything other than God can suffer corruption, which is to say it can be deprived of goods that are appropriate or natural to it. 30

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This privation is the basic form of evil; it is in fact a lack of form, a deformation, such as the ruination in a ruined house, the illness in an unhealthy body, and the disorder in a wicked soul. Hence there can be no evil except in good things. Evil is the corruption in good things that, if it goes far enough, results in their destruction. So living things get sick and die, a house falls into ruin and collapses, human souls grow vicious and fail to acquire the virtues needed for a happy life, and communities become unjust and fall into internecine conflict that threatens their unity and thus their very being (City of God 19: 12). The doctrine of original sin adds human nature itself to this list of good things that have been corrupted. To understand both sides of this two-sided view, it helps to know something about the views Augustine opposed. In a nutshell, his ontological optimism is set forth in writings against the Manichaeans early in his career, whereas his moral pessimism develops in his writings against the Pelagians in the last decades of his life. The key question raised by his Manichaean opponents is “Where does evil come from?” (Unde malum?). The key question Augustine himself raised against his Pelagian opponents is “What need do we have of divine grace?” Augustine’s answers to these two questions converge on the concept of free will and its corruption by sin. Because sin is a corruption of the will (voluntas) it is necessarily voluntary, he argues against the Manichaeans (On Free Choice of the Will 3: 1.2). But, because the will itself has a history going back to the soul of Adam, he argues against the Pelagians, its corruption is not purely voluntary but an unchosen inheritance that it must struggle to overcome, and never does fully overcome in this mortal life.

Evil as corruption in good things To begin with Augustine’s ontological optimism: it is useful to bear in mind that what “Manichaeanism” means in Western history was largely determined by Augustine’s antiManichaean writings, not by the Manichaeans themselves. Gerald Bonner is unusual among Augustine scholars in offering an extensive account of the Manichaean religion in its own terms, as well as Augustine’s polemics against it (Bonner 1986: 157–236). Manichaeanism (or Manicheism) combined elements of Zoroastrianism and Gnosticism. It originated in Persia with the teachings of Mani, also known as Manes or Manichaeus (216–277), who presented himself as a prophet and apostle of Jesus Christ. It is sometimes classified as the last great form of Christian Gnosticism, but most scholars treat it as a different religion from Christianity. In any case, when it arrived in the Roman Empire it claimed to be the only true Christianity, and precisely for that reason was resisted as a heresy by the Catholic Church. Although illegal under both pagan and Christian emperors, it spread widely and attracted an underground following that included the young Augustine, who spent nearly a decade as a Manichaean in his twenties. The Manichaean question – “Where does evil come from?” – presented Augustine with a dilemma. Either evil comes from God or it does not. Since no one wants to say God is the source of evil, it seems we are forced to conclude that evil arose independently from God. From this the Manichaeans drew the dualistic conclusion that there are two natures or kinds of being, the one good and the other evil – the one derived from God and the other a race of darkness that is as old as God is, a primeval nature that God did not create and does not control. This cosmic dualism reinforces a psychological dualism: in the Manichaean view our souls are fragments of divine light from God, while our bodies belong to the race of darkness. The ultimate aim of Manichaean spirituality, like that of many Gnostics before them, was to separate the soul from the body forever, so that the soul may return home to heaven unencumbered by evil. Interestingly, Augustine in retrospect sees a materialist ontology underlying Manichaean dualism (Confessions 5: 10.19–20). According to Augustine’s diagnosis, the Manichaeans’ 31

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fundamental mistake was to think of both good and evil as material beings. They thought that both God and the soul are literally made of the light of heaven, the same corporeal light that we see in the sun and the moon. Evil also is a material being, a dark and noxious substance that composes our bodies. Augustine’s escape from Manichaean dualism was therefore decisively aided by the antimaterialist ontology of ancient Platonism, from which he learned to think of God as the incorporeal Good and evil as a kind of nonbeing (Confessions 7: 9.13–17.23). Hence his answer to the Manichaean question is that evil does not come from God but is also not an independent being, for it is not a being at all but a corruption or privation of being. The two key terms here relate Augustine’s account of evil to both the biblical and the classical traditions. Privatio, a term that Augustine uses occasionally (Confessions 3: 7.12; City of God 12: 7; Enchiridion 3.11),3 is the standard translation of Aristotelian steresis, the privation or lack of form, a concept that played an important role also in later Platonist accounts of evil that were influential on Augustine’s thinking (O’Brien 1996). Modern scholars use the label “privative theory of evil” to describe the Augustinian view because of the aptness of this term. However, Augustine much more often used the other term, corruptio, and its cognates. This is partly because it is found frequently in the Latin translation of the Bible, where it renders the Greek term phthora and its cognates, which describe both the bodily decay that goes with death (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15: 52–3; 1 Peter 1: 4) and the moral decay that goes with sinful desires (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15: 33; Ephesians 4: 22).4 The term also has classical resonances, as its cognate in English is often used to translate the closely-related verb, diaphtheiro, which is the term used in the accusation against Socrates that he corrupts the youth of Athens (Plato, Euthyphro 2c, Apology 24b). Corruptio can refer to any change for the worse, hence any failure, disorder, defect or privation. In Augustine’s usage it is an ontological term, for it equates a loss of goodness with a deficiency in being (The Nature of the Good 4–17, Enchiridion 4.12–13, Confessions 7: 12.18). Because the concept is ontological, it extends to much more than moral evil or sin. In part this is because there is only one Latin term, malum, to cover both what is called evil and what is called bad in English. Hence the concept of corruption applies to bad apples, bad clothes, bad health, and bad people. Anything that goes bad in any way is corrupted. By the same token, so long as a thing is not wholly corrupted, it continues to exist and therefore is still God’s good creation. Hence Augustine can go so far as to say that every evil thing is really an evil good thing or even “an evil good” (Enchiridion 4.13). This formulation is meant to be memorable but not deeply paradoxical; it is merely another way of saying that evil things are in fact good things that are partly corrupted. The important consequence is that there can be no such thing as utter corruption, for that would be utter nonexistence – which is not evil, for it is nothing at all. Because everything that exists is God’s good creation, complete loss of goodness is complete loss of being. Thus to speak of the devil as “pure evil” is to think like a Manichaean; in orthodox Christianity there is no such thing as pure evil. The orthodox teaching, reinforced by Augustinian ontology, is that the devil is a fallen angel, one more example of God’s good creation that has been corrupted. Augustine’s thought requires a sharp distinction between “corruptible” and “corrupted,” which is to say between the possibility and the actuality of evil. Everything God created is corruptible, for it is both good and changeable (The Nature of the Good 1), which means it has some form of goodness that it can lose (Confessions 7: 12.18). Changeability or (in language familiar from the history of English poetry) mutability is for Augustine a kind of ontological fragility or vulnerability to evil. It is not inevitable that things become corrupted, but they are inevitably corruptible, for this is a necessary consequence of being created and therefore mutable. Only God is incorruptible, because only God is immutable and thus free from all possibility of 32

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changing for the worse. Ultimate human happiness or salvation is therefore a kind of participation in divine immutability and incorruptibility which, though it cannot make a created thing into something uncreated and timelessly eternal as God is, does stabilize the being of created things so that they may enjoy what the New Testament calls “everlasting life” rather than a life threatened by evil (Confessions 4: 12.18).

Moral evil as disordered love For Augustine, sin or moral evil (the two terms are equivalent) is a corruption of the soul, specifically in the will. This way of situating moral evil implies that choosing evil does not mean choosing an evil thing. Rather, it means choosing a good thing in an evil way, where the evil is located in how the soul chooses and in the kind of love that motivates the choosing. For the focus of moral evaluation for Augustine is the will, and every act of will is an act of love (as every act of the eye is an act of seeing and every act of the intellect is an act of understanding). Sin therefore is not incompatible with love, but rather is a way of loving that is corrupt. It is disordered love, in which the will turns to good things in the wrong order, loving lower goods over higher goods (like valuing money more than people) and especially temporal goods over eternal goods (like clinging to a friend as if he could make you everlastingly happy). Since only God is the eternal Good, only God can make a person everlastingly happy. To seek ultimate happiness elsewhere – loving things other than God as if they could be the foundation of a happy life – is to find only misery. This point is illustrated frequently in the narrative of the Confessions and summed up in the famous prayer in its opening chapter: “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” The insistence on properly-ordered love is the backbone of Augustine’s ethics (On Christian Doctrine, book 1; cf. Confessions 7: 16.22). The simplest kinds of moral evil are sins of the flesh or carnal sins (“carnal” is equivalent to “fleshly,” as it comes from the Latin term for flesh, carnem). Since the apostle Paul in the New Testament identifies flesh (Greek sarx) as a fundamental source of moral evil (Romans 8: 1–13; Galatians 5: 16–24), Augustine takes pains to distinguish the flesh from the body – for to identify the body as the source of evil would be to think once again like a Manichaean. Augustine argues that the whole human being, body and soul, is corrupted as a result of sin, but the source of sin is the soul not the body, for it is the soul that wills, chooses, and loves wrongly, whereas the body merely bears some of the punishment of sin, of which the most important is death (City of God 14: 2–3). Sins of the flesh arise when the soul indulges itself in excessive love for corporeal things (what we would now call “physical” things) that are appealing to the bodily senses (they look good, taste good, feel good, etc.). These lower, external goods can be a source of temptation (Confessions 10: 30.41–34.53), but the direct cause of sin is always an act of will in the soul (City of God 14: 11). The sins of the flesh are relatively superficial compared to the sin of pride, in which what is loved in the wrong order is oneself (Confesssions 10: 36.58–39.64). In Augustine’s analysis, pride is the desire to become the basis of one’s own being, replacing God (City of God 14: 13). This is the sin of Satan at the beginning, the first of all moral evils in the universe (prior to the sin of Adam). It illustrates how it is possible to make evil choices even when there is no evil thing in the world to choose. Satan loved a good thing (himself) in the wrong order (above God), and this kind of love is a sinful disorder in the free will that God gave him. An important consequence of Augustine’s view of free will is that the source of sin is a good thing. Again, this is not meant to be a paradoxical claim. Like every kind of evil, sin can only exist in a good thing – in this case, the will (On Free Choice of the Will 2: 1.3; City of God 12: 7–8). Thus God makes moral evil possible precisely by creating creatures with free will, because 33

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like all created things free will is corruptible. One could likewise point out that God made blindness possible by creating creatures with eyes. The opposite side of the coin is that, precisely because free will is a good thing, it is not neutral or indifferent between good and evil. As the eye is created for the purpose of seeing, not in order to go blind, so free will is created for the purpose of freely loving God and neighbor, not in order to make sin possible. Hence although it is free will that makes sin possible, that is not its purpose but rather the way it is corrupted. Sin is thus not an exercise of freedom but a way for the will to lose the freedom to accomplish that for which it was created. In Augustine’s very influential interpretation of the sin of Adam, it was preceded by the sin of Satan, for the serpent in the garden (Genesis 3: 1) was traditionally the devil in disguise (City of God 14: 11). Yet Augustine does not make much of the serpent’s role in the story, precisely because Adam’s sin is like Satan’s: it does not depend on any prior corruption in the world, but rather is in essence the proud attempt to become the basis of his own being. To live according to self in this way is to fail to live according to the truth, which is the same as to fail to live according to God (City of God 14: 4). That moral evil is always a failure to live in accordance with the truth illustrates a deep connection between will and intellect in Augustine. Disordered love is never separable from cognitive error. Manichaean materialism, for example, is a moral as well as intellectual failure. To think that both God and the soul are material beings is to fail to see either one clearly, due to the impurity and corruption of the mind’s eye, which assimilates itself to what it loves, turning away from the inner light of Truth (which is God) to pay attention only to mental images (phantasmata, in Augustine’s Latin) derived from things of the senses (Confessions 7: 1.1–2; The Trinity 10: 5.7–7.10). Our souls were created with intellects meant to see God, but because of our carnal habits we are always looking at external, corporeal things as if they were more real and more desirable than the incorruptible Good, which is also the intelligible Truth and inward Beauty (Confessions 10: 27:38).

Sin and grace Augustine is known in the Western Christian tradition as “the doctor of grace” (where doctor is used in its original Latin sense of “teacher,” one who has a doctrine) mainly because of his writings against Pelagius and his followers. Augustine and his fellow bishops in Africa succeeded in convincing both the pope in Rome and a synod in Jerusalem to condemn Pelagian teaching as heretical. As a result, “Pelagianism” has become a standard name for the heresy of denying the need of divine grace for salvation. Like “Manichaeanism,” it is a term whose actual usage has been determined mainly by Augustine’s writings against it, though once again Gerald Bonner offers us an extensive account of both sides of the controversy between Augustine and his Pelagian opponents (Bonner 1986: 312–93). Grace, in Augustine’s teaching, is the inward help of God that is needed if the soul is to overcome its carnal habits and live in justice or righteousness. (No difference between these two English terms should be read into translations of Augustine, because they translate a single term in Latin, justitia, as well as a single term in New Testament Greek, dikaiosyne.) Because our will itself is corrupted, we cannot free ourselves from sin by our own free will (On Free Choice of the Will 3: 18.2). Augustine often compares sin to a disease, with the implication that it is not something we ourselves can cure (Nature and Grace 30.34, 48.56–49.57). We contracted the disease by our own bad choices, but now the choices have become an inescapable habit, like an addiction that we cannot overcome by our own willpower. By contrast, the Pelagian teaching is that God has afforded us sufficient help to live in righteousness simply by giving us the law and 34

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commandments in Scripture, in addition to creating human nature with the power of free will (The Spirit and the Letter 2.4). Hence Augustine will sometimes contrast grace and law, and other times grace and nature, in both cases to bring out what the Pelagians are missing about divine grace: that it is God’s own work in our souls, inwardly moving the will to take delight in loving God and neighbor, which is true righteousness and obedience to the law of God as well as the true fulfillment of human nature (The Spirit and the Letter 3.5). This inner gift of the righteousness of God (justitia Dei, a very important term for the Reformation doctrine of justification) is not coercive or alien to the will but is precisely what we pray for when we ask for God’s help to live and love as we ought (The Spirit and the Letter 32.56). In Pelagianism, living rightly is not a gift of God but is due to the exercise of our own free will. Augustine, in effect, treats this as a psychologically naive form of moralism that underestimates the power of sin in our souls. The biblical commandments to love God and neighbor, which are central to Christian ethics, demand not merely outward compliance but an inward willingness of heart, which is not forthcoming among those whose will is corrupted by carnal habits. We are in bondage to sin, not because some external force compels us but because in the depth of our hearts we habitually take more delight in lower goods than in God. Hence, even when our will is to choose and love in obedience to God’s law, we find the contrary will also operative within us, still inordinately attached to lesser goods (drink, sex, money, and so on) so that in fact we would rather not obey God. The result is an outward compliance with God’s law combined with inward resistance, and thus a failure to achieve wholehearted obedience (The Spirit and the Letter 8.13). Since both kinds of desire are present within one will, it is a will divided against itself, which Augustine vividly depicts and analyzes in the narrative leading up to his conversion (Confessions 8: 5.10–12, 7.16–9.21): old will against new will, carnal love against spiritual love, hence (in terms taken again from Paul) flesh against spirit – both of which are impulses within the soul, not a contrast between body and soul as in Manichaeanism. In his anti-Pelagian works Augustine argues that behind our carnal habits is our vitiated nature, which we inherited from the first human being. Not just individual souls but human nature itself is corrupted, subject to a kind of hereditary moral disease, because all descendants of Adam are born sinners. The matrix of Augustine’s thinking here is Paul’s contrast between Christ and Adam (Romans 5: 12–21). By nature, we are born in Adam, but by grace we can be reborn in Christ through baptism. This teaching of the Catholic Church becomes the basis of Augustine’s key argument against the Pelagians, which centers on the necessity of baptism for salvation. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin means not just that we are all prone to sin, but that we all share in Adam’s guilt. Even infants are not innocent. Despite having committed no actual sins of their own, they are deserving of divine condemnation because of their participation in the legacy of Adam, and there is no salvation for them without Christian baptism. Unbaptised infants therefore suffer everlasting condemnation, though they are subject to the least severe penalty of all the damned (The Punishment and Forgiveness of Sins 1: 16.21). Augustine draws on deep roots in the African Church when he depicts mothers running with their sick babies to have them baptized before they die (Sermon 293: 10; cf. The Punishment and Forgiveness of Sins 1: 18.23; The Literal Meaning of Genesis 1: 11.19). Pelagians have no way of understanding these good Christian women, Augustine argues, because they have no understanding of the depth of original sin, the evil we have all inherited from Adam. Original sin is like inherited property in that it is ours under the law, with all its burdens and liabilities, whether we want it or not. And it is like biological inheritance in that it is transmitted to us by procreation, not merely by our upbringing (The Punishment and Forgiveness of Sins 1: 9.9–15.21). Its effect is in fact both moral and biological. As Adam disobeyed God, Augustine 35

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argues, so our bodies now disobey our souls: they grow sick and die even when our will is to live, and they cannot function sexually without lust, an inordinate desire that is out of the will’s control (City of God 14: 15–16). Hence in our fallen state the good of procreation is impossible without the evil of sexual lust. This is the most visible form of concupiscence or cupidity, the disordered love that Augustine contrasts with charity, his name for love of God and neighbor (thus “charity” in the Augustinian tradition means much more than giving alms to the poor). It is important to realize that for Augustine “concupiscence” can refer to any inordinate desire, The cognate verb, concupiscere, is used in the Latin translation of the commandment “thou shalt not covet” (Exodus 20: 17; Romans 7: 7). But specifically sexual concupiscence becomes a central topic in Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings because of its peculiar inescapability (the human race cannot continue without it) and visibility (since genitalia are moved by lust rather than controlled by the will). Thus concupiscence can serve as a one-word description of how human nature is corrupted after Adam, and specifically sexual concupiscence is what, in Augustine’s view, makes that corruption impossible to miss. Since original sin infects all of humanity, it makes everyone worthy of damnation. No one can be saved except by the working of grace, which is not given to everyone. In the last decade of his life Augustine gradually came to clarity about the implications of his conviction that grace is, by definition, gratuitous, which implies that it cannot be earned by our own will or works (Cary 2008: 70–121). Therefore it is ultimately up to God who receives grace and is saved. Adapting an image from Paul (Romans 9: 21), Augustine illustrates this ultimate logic of grace by labeling the human race a “mass of damnation” (or sometimes “mass of sin” or “mass of perdition”). God is free to choose part of this mass for salvation, while leaving the rest in their original state of damnation. It is like a potter choosing to use one part of a mass or lump of clay to make a vessel for honorable use (one might think of a chalice used in the temple) and another for dishonor and filth (perhaps a chamber pot). The point is that the whole mass starts out equally sinful and damnable, and therefore it is an act of sheer gratuitous mercy when God chooses to save some undeserving sinners rather than others. This way of treating us sinners is unequal but not unjust, Augustine argues, because no one gets anything worse than they deserve. In a key biblical illustration that Augustine treats at length in a decisive discussion (To Simplician 1: 2.1–22; cf. Enchiridion 25.98), the twins Jacob and Esau are born perfectly equal, but only Jacob is chosen by the grace of God (Romans 9: 13). God’s choosing of some rather than others for salvation is the heart of the Augustinian doctrine of election (where “election” simply reflects the Latin term for choice). Since God is eternal and has knowledge of all history from beginning to end, this choice is (from our temporal perspective) predestined, decided upon before our birth. So, in Augustinian theology, the doctrine of predestination is based on the doctrine of election, which specifically concerns God’s eternal choice to bestow the grace of salvation on some and not others. This doctrine is famously prominent in Calvinist theology, but is also defended by Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval Catholic theologian (Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 23).

Providence and evil Because predestination, as Augustine defines it, is specifically concerned with grace (The Predestination of the Saints 10.19), it should not be confused with larger issues about providence, divine foreknowledge and determinism. However, providence and predestination are of course logically connected, as God’s eternal choice of how to distribute the gift of grace is informed by his eternal knowledge of the history of the world he creates and providentially governs. Augustine’s view fits the recent label “meticulous providence,” in that it excludes any possibility 36

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of mere accident. Everything that happens comes under God’s providential ordering of history, and in particular no evil takes place that God does not foreknow and permit. For God always has the power to prevent any evil, and therefore always has good reason for permitting the evils that do occur. In Augustine’s terms, God makes good use of evils (The Nature of the Good 37), permitting them because he knows what good he will bring out of them (City of God 14: 11). Augustine illustrates God’s providential governance of human history with the way he tells the story of his own life in the Confessions. Young Augustine has many concupiscent desires, but God uses them for Augustine’s own good, turning the sweetness of his sinful delights into bitterness (for instance, sexual lust turns into jealousy) so as to turn the young man back to the true and lasting delight of the love of God, in which there is no bitterness (Confessions 2: 2.4; 6: 6.9). Even the apparent success of his evil desires, for example when his ambition leads him to desert his mother in Africa and sail off to a promising career in Italy, is really the result of divine providence using his desires to bring about the healing of his desires. Unbenownst to himself, he is going to Italy to meet St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, who will be instrumental in his conversion, his escape from Manichaeanism, and his return to the Catholic Church (Confessions 5: 8.15). There are rules for telling a providential narrative of this Augustinian sort, which have had a great influence on later Christian theodicy – the modern name given to attempts to “justify the ways of God to men” (Milton 1993: book 1, line 26) by showing how evil can exist in a world created and governed by a God who is both omnipotent and perfectly good. The first rule is that God never causes moral evils but only permits them – for example, by not preventing sinners from sinning. Most fundamentally, in his meticulous providence God always brings a greater good out of every evil he permits (the “greater good principle,” as it has come to be called). Consequently, God is never to be blamed for any evil, but only praised for the wisdom with which he uses it for his good purposes. Moreover, no one ever suffers unjustly, for all are sinners deserving divine punishment. But there is a difference between faithful Christians, whose suffering is a salutary form of moral discipline, and the wicked, who sometimes escape punishment in this life because God is patient and gives them time to repent (City of God 1: 8–10). Hence in an Augustinian theodicy no one ever has grounds for complaining against God.

The controversial Augustine There is much that is controversial about the legacy of Augustine, even in the largely Augustinian Christianity of the West. His ontological optimism went largely unchallenged in the medieval and early modern period, but in recent years his privative theory of evil has been dismissed rather peremptorily, as if it were an attempt to solve the problem of evil by claiming that evil is unreal (Mackie 1955: 48; Matson 1961: 141–4). This peremptory dismissal, as defenders of the doctrine have pointed out (Maritain 1942; Cress 1989) is based on two misconceptions. First, in the privative theory evil is not illusory but is as real as any defect, disorder or failure. Second, Augustine and his heirs do not use the privative theory as a theodicy but as a rejoinder to the Manichaean contention that evil has a being of its own, independent of God. Its purpose is to give an account of the ontology of evil, not to explain why God permits it. A more informed criticism of the privative theory turns from ontology to experience, claiming that pain is a reality that cannot be described as a privation. (Kane 1980; cf. the denial of this claim in the response to Kane by Anglin and Goetz 1982). Another important criticism involves raising the question: how evil can have power to cause anything if it has no being? The standard reply, given by Thomas Aquinas, is that the power of evil depends on the causal power of the good it corrupts (Summa Theologica Part I, Question 48, article 1, reply 4 and Question 49, article 2, reply 2). An evil man may do great harm, but the fact that he can do anything at all is due to 37

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his possessing powers such as intellect and will, which are by nature good but which do harm when corrupted by error and injustice. A more general question is whether the privative theory can be articulated apart from a robust classical metaphysics that owes a great deal to Platonism (Hick 1979: 43–64). Augustine’s understanding of providence coheres with his ontological optimism in teaching that God literally can do no wrong. Because God is never blameworthy, Augustinian theodicy has no room for complaints against God. Recent biblical scholarship has strongly challenged this approach, pointing out that the Bible has genres of lamentation and complaint directed toward God in the Psalms and other texts such as Job and Lamentations. Unlike Augustine, it seems, the Bible can hold together the conviction that God is always right and the human need to complain and question God’s ways (Brueggemann 1984: 51–122). More troubling than Augustine’s ontological optimism is his moral pessimism. It can be seen as realistic but also as inhumane – especially his doctrine of infant damnation. The notion of limbo arose as a mitigation of the punishment of infants after death, as they are excluded from heaven but suffer no pain or torment. Recently, a document issued under Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that neither limbo nor the damnation of unbaptised infants was ever an official teaching of the Catholic Church. Hence hope for the salvation of unbaptized infants is a legitimate (though not required) Catholic belief.5 Questions arise as to how much of the doctrine of original sin can survive modern historiography and theories of evolution after Darwin. Mainline Protestants (Schleiermacher 1986: 269–354; Kierkegaard 1980; Niebuhr 1941: 178–264) and now Catholics (Wiley 2002) often argue for a modified version of Augustinian doctrine that sees sin as universal but does not depend on transmission from a literal, historical Adam. Conservative evangelicals in contrast typically regard the connection with a historical Adam as essential (Madeume and Reeves 2014). Like most of the Church fathers, Augustine himself preferred to avoid literalism in his readings of the Bible. Most famously, he rejected the notion of six literal days of creation, even in his “literal” commentary on Genesis (The Literal Meaning of Genesis 4: 26.43; 5: 1.1–36). However, he had no reason to doubt the historical existence of Adam and was deeply interested in the concept of a first man as the source of the sinful unity of human nature. A modern Augustinianism, without a literal Adam or infant damnation, will typically point to a kind of social solidarity in sin that includes the whole of humanity, with a certain tragic element of “ownership” of sins that are ours without our choosing (Couenhoven 2013). In this view, our sinfulness is not transmitted by biological propagation, but neither is it acquired by voluntary choice. From infancy our moral agency is formed by cultural forces that deform us, making us racists in some cultures, thoughtless consumers in others, and yet we cannot simply disown responsibility for the character that results from processes of cultural formation in which we are, inevitably, active and willful participants. Augustinianism, rather than Pelagianism, is in a position to acknowledge that our active self-shaping is always already constrained by a problematic inheritance much older and more powerful than ourselves. Augustine’s view of sexuality was challenged even within his lifetime. While his condemnation of concupiscence was hardly unusual, his notion that sexual desire after Adam was always concupiscent meant that every act of sexual intercourse was sinful, made possible by illicit lust rather than purely by the legitimate desire to beget children. Hence even within marriage sexual activity was always sinful, though it was a small sin that could be forgiven by ordinary daily prayers (such as “forgive us our trespasses” in the Lord’s Prayer). Augustine explicitly defended the goodness of marriage (The Excellence of Marriage; City of God 14: 21–2; Marriage and Desire 1: 1.1; The Punishment and Forgiveness of Sins 1: 39.57), but many critics over the centuries have agreed substantially with Julian of Ecclanum, his last great Pelagian opponent, who saw in his writings 38

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a residual Manichaeanism that logically implied a condemnation of marriage itself, despite what Augustine claimed. On the other hand, postmodern thinkers writing in the vein of Foucault have welcomed Augustine’s notion that none of us is in possession of a sexuality that is pure and innocent, free from the vicissitudes of human corruption and power (Rees 2011; Schuld 2003). Over the centuries, immense controversies have swirled around Augustine’s doctrines of sin and grace. Augustine’s critics tend to think his view of the corrupting power of sin leaves too little role for human nature and free will cooperating with grace in the process of salvation. His voluminous writings and the developments in his own thought over the course of several decades allow for rival interpretations of Augustine on this score. Protestant theologians often emphasized the gratuity of grace (as in the motto “grace alone,” which excludes the possibility of earning God’s favor) and the power of sin (as in the Calvinist doctrine of “total depravity,” which means that every power of the soul is corrupted by sin) while downplaying Augustine’s affirmations that the process of salvation requires merit, which is earned by the will freely cooperating with grace (Grace and Free Choice 6.13–9.21; cf. On Faith and Works 14.21–15.26). Catholic interpreters of Augustine who came close to these Protestant views, putting great emphasis on the incapacity of human nature and the power of sin, touched off damaging controversies within Catholicism. The rigorism of the Jansenists, for example, inspired by the publication of Cornelius Jansen’s massive study Augustinus in 1640, provoked a controversy that rocked the French Church for more than a century, surviving attempts by both king and pope to suppress it (Pelikan 1984: 374–85; Doyle 2000). Meanwhile, Protestants such as John Wesley, who was a theological critic of Calvinism, found themselves opposing Augustine as well. Much of the history of Protestant–Catholic polemics can be seen as an ongoing argument about the teaching of Augustine as well as the Bible. In the twentieth century, perhaps the deepest criticism of Augustine came from Karl Barth, a Protestant theologian who overturned the fundamental assumptions of his doctrine of election. Whereas for Augustine election means that God chooses some rather than others for salvation, for Barth it means that God chooses one for the salvation of others, because election is centered on God’s choosing to be for humanity in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the savior of all (Barth 1957; 3–194). Arguably, Barth’s doctrine recaptures the original structure of election in the Bible, where God chooses Abraham and his seed for the blessing of all nations (Genesis 12: 3). Biblical election thus differs from Augustinian election because, instead of God choosing some to the exclusion of others, it means God chooses some for the sake of others. Augustine’s thought remains a pervasive, if often contested and frequently indirect, influence in Western culture. Attempts to take evil seriously, from Kant’s notion of radical evil (Kant 1960: 23–39) to Kierkegaard’s notion of Angst (Kierkegaard, 1980) and even Camus’s notion of the absurd as “sin without God” (Camus 1991: 40), often have an Augustinian pedigree. But so also do many modern notions of grace, including Martin Buber’s account of how “will and grace are joined” in the encounter of I and Thou (Buber 1970: 58, 62).

Notes 1 Citations of Augustine’s treatises follow a standard format: “book: chapter.paragraph.” The book number is included only if the treatise contains more than one book. Some editions of Augustine’s works omit either chapter or paragraph numbers, and some label paragraph numbers as “chapter” numbers (the difference can be told by the fact that chapter numbers in the standard format are never smaller than paragraph numbers). 2 English translations of Augustine’s titles are unfortunately not standardized. Old titles tend to be closer etymologically to the Latin, as for example On Marriage and Concupiscence (De Nuptiis et Concupiscentia), for which the more recent translation, cited here, is titled Marriage and Desire. Similarly, the more recent


Phillip Cary translation On the Good of Marriage (De Bono Conjugali) is titled The Excellence of Marriage, and the more recent title for On the Merits and Remission of Sins (De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione) is On the Punishment and Forgiveness of Sins, both of which are cited below. 3 A convenient way to consult Augustine’s Latin is at the website,, which contains his complete works. Modern critical editions of his works are available in the series Corpus Christianorum Series Latina (Turnhout: Brepols). 4 The use of “corruption” and its cognates is particularly visible in the King James translation of the Bible. More recent translations tend to use terms such as “perishable” in place of “corruptible.” 5 This document “The Hope of Salvation for Infants who Die without Being Baptised” is available on the Vatican website at doc_20070419_un-baptised-infants_en.html

References Anglin, B. and Goetz, C. (1982) “Evil is Privation,” International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 13:4. Aquinas, T. (1997) Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, ed. A. Pegis, vol. 1, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett. Augustine. (1953) The Nature of the Good (De Natura Boni), trans. J.H.S. Burleigh, in Augustine: Earlier Writings, Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, pp. 326–48. Augustine. (1953) To Simplician—On Various Questions (Ad Simplicianum de Diversis Quaestionibus), trans. J.H.S. Burleigh, in Augustine: Earlier Writings, Philadelphia: Westminster, pp. 370–406. Augustine. (1958) On Christian Doctrine (De Doctrina Christiana), trans. D.W. Robertson, New York: Macmillan. Augustine. (1982) The Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad Litteram), 2 vols., trans. J.H. Taylor, New York: Newman. Augustine. (1984) City of God (De Civitate Dei), trans. H. Bettenson, London: Penguin. Augustine. (1988) Enchiridion, trans. A.C. Outler, in Augustine: Confessions and Enchiridion, Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, pp. 335–412. Augustine. (1988) On Faith and Works (De Fide et Operibus), trans. G.J. Lombardo, New York: Newman. Augustine. (1991) Confessions (Confessiones), trans. H. Chadwick, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Augustine. (1993) On Free Choice of the Will (De Libero Arbitrio), trans. T. Williams, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett. Augustine. (1994) Sermons, vol. 8, trans. E. Hill, Hyde Park, NY: New City. Augustine. (1997) Nature and Grace (De Natura et Gratia), trans. R. Teske, in Answer to the Pelagians I, Hyde Park, NY: New City. pp. 225–75. Augustine. (1997) The Punishment and Forgiveness of Sins (De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione), trans. R. Teske, in Answer to the Pelagians I, Hyde Park, NY: New City, pp. 19–137. Augustine. (1997) The Spirit and the Letter (De Spiritu et Littera), trans. R. Teske, in Answer to the Pelagians I, Hyde Park, NY: New City, pp. 150–202. Augustine. (1998) Marriage and Desire (De Nuptiis et Concupiscentia), trans. R. Teske, in Answer to the Pelagians II, Hyde Park, NY: New City, pp. 28–96. Augustine. (1999) The Excellence of Marriage (De Bono Conjugali), trans. R. Kearney, in Marriage and Virginity, Hyde Park, NY: New City, pp. 33–61. Augustine. (1999) Grace and Free Choice (De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio), trans. R. Teske, in Answer to the Pelagians IV, Hyde Park, NY: New City, pp. 71–106. Augustine. (1999) The Predestination of the Saints (De Predestinatione Sanctorum), trans. R. Teske, in Answer to the Pelagians IV, Hyde Park, NY: New City, pp. 149–90. Augustine. (2012) The Trinity (De Trinitate), trans. E. Hill, Hyde Park, NY: New City Press. Barth, K. (1957) Church Dogmatics, volume 2, part 2, trans. G.W. Bromiley et al., Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. Bonner, G. (1986) St Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies, Norwich: Canterbury Press. Brueggemann, W. (1984) The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg. Buber, M. (1970) I and Thou, trans. W. Kaufman, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Camus, A. (1991) The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. J. O’Brien, New York: Random House, 1991. Cary, P. (2008) Inner Grace: Augustine in the Traditions of Plato and Paul, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Couenhoven, J. (2013) Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ: Agency, Necessity and Culpability in Augustinian Theology, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Augustine on evil Cress, D. A. (1989) “A Defense of Augustine’s Privation Account of Evil,” Augustinian Studies 20:109–128. Doyle, W. (2000) Jansenism, New York: St. Martin’s. Hick, J. (1979) Evil and the God of Love, London: Collins. Kane, G. S. (1980) “Evil and Privation,” International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 11:43–58. Kant, I. (1960) Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, trans. T.M. Greene and H.H. Hudson,, New York: Harper & Row. Kierkegaard, S. (1980) The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin, trans. R. Thomte, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Lewis, C. S. (1960) Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan. Luther, M. (1969) The Bondage of the Will, in P. Watson (ed.), Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, pp. 99–334. Mackie, J.L. (1955) “Evil and Omnipotence,” in N. Pike (ed.) God and Evil, Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Madeume, H. and Reeves R., eds. (2014) Adam, the Fall and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014. Maritain, J. (1942) St. Thomas and the Problem of Evil, Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press. Matson, W.I. (1965) The Existence of God, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Milton, J. (1993) Paradise Lost, New York: Norton. Niebuhr, R. (1941) The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 1, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. O’Brien, D. (1996) “Plotinus on Matter and Evil,” in The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, ed. L.P. Gerson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pelikan, J. (1984) Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300–1700), Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Plato (1997) Complete Works, ed. J.M. Cooper, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett. Rees, G. (2011) The Romance of Innocent Sexuality, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock. Schleiermacher, F. (1986) The Christian Faith, ed. H.R. Mackintosh and J.S. Stewart, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. Schuld, J. (2003) Foucault and Augustine: Reconsidering Power and Love, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame. Wiley, T. (2002) Original Sin: Origins, Developments, Contemporary Meanings, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

For Further Reading Burnaby, J. (1938) Amor Dei, Norwich: Canterbury Press. (This classic study of Augustine on love – in English, despite the Latin title, and now available in a paperback reprint by Wipf & Stock – remains the best and most comprehensive introduction to Augustine’s ethical thought.) Evans, G.R. (1990) Augustine on Evil, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Does an unusually thorough job discussing the cognitive dimension of moral evil.) Fitzgerald, A. ed. (1999) Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. (The first place to go for scholarly orientation regarding any major topic in Augustine’s life and thought, his influence on later thinkers, and an introduction to each of his writings.)


3 AQUINAS ON EVIL W. Matthews Grant

Someone familiar only with the writings of twentieth- and twenty-first-century philosophical theists might be surprised by how little attention the most celebrated of the medieval theists gives to the so-called “problem of evil,” at least as that problem is nowadays understood. As we shall see, it is even a matter of dispute whether Aquinas thought there was an interesting question to ask about how God could be morally justified in permitting the evil we find in the world. Still, Aquinas has much to say about the ontology, types, and causes of evil, and about evil’s relationship to God. His treatment of evil is found principally in select articles from the Summa theologiae, in select chapters from the Summa contra gentiles, in his collection of disputed questions De malo (On Evil), and in his commentary on the book of Job.

The ontology and types of evil Like Augustine,1 Aquinas denies that evil is any sort of real entity, any sort of positive ontological item. Rather, evil is privation, the lack in some subject of what ought to be there, as, for example, blindness is the lack of sight in the person who, by nature, ought to see. As such, evil is decidedly not illusory. Privations abound. But, when we affirm their “existence,” we are affirming that something is missing, not picking out entities or anything actual. The belief that evil is privation was well established in Aquinas’s day, but he did not accept it solely on authority.2 Nor were his reasons for affirming the view exclusively, or even primarily, theological. Aquinas tells us that since “one opposite is known through the other . . . what evil is must be known from the nature of good” (ST 1.48.1). Thus, to understand why Aquinas identifies evil with privation, we must first understand some of his views on goodness. Referencing Aristotle, Aquinas takes goodness to be whatever is in some way desirable (ST 1.5.1). By “desirable” he means an object of positive appetite, inclination, or tendency, whether conscious or unconscious. Now, it turns out for Aquinas that everything actual, insofar as it is actual, is an object of desire. One argument he gives for this claim is that everything is perfect insofar as it is actual, and everything is desirable insofar as it is perfect, since all things desire their own perfection (ST 1.5.1). Another argument comes from Aquinas’s belief that all that is actual (save God) has what he calls a per se efficient cause,3 and that all per se efficient causes have an inclination to or directedness towards their effects, an appetite or desire for them (DM 1.3).


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Given that everything actual is an object of desire, it follows that everything actual is good. But, then, all that has positive existence is good, since that which has positive existence is actual. Here we reach Aquinas’s doctrine of the convertibility (or coextensionality) of being and goodness: “Goodness and being are really the same, and differ only in idea” (ST 1.5.1). But, if being and goodness are really the same, and evil is the opposite of goodness, then evil cannot be being. Evil cannot consist in anything that exists, any entity. Rather, it must consist in the absence of something (ST 1.48.1). Yet, it cannot be mere absence that constitutes evil. Were that true, the absurdity would follow that “everything would be evil through not having the good belonging to something else; for example, a man would be evil who had not the swiftness of a roe, or the strength of a lion” (ST 1.48.3). What constitutes evil is not mere absence, but privation, the absence of what is due, of what ought to be there. Just as it makes sense to say that the goodness of a thing consists in its having the perfection it ought to have, so it makes sense to say that the badness of a thing consists in its lacking the perfection it ought to have (SCG 3.6.1). A presupposition of Aquinas’s account of evil, of course, is that there are standards – objective standards if good and evil is to be an objective matter – regarding what perfections different things ought to have. It would make very little sense, in his view, to talk of good and evil, or of kindred notions like health and unhealth, without such standards. A standard is provided, Aquinas thinks, by a thing’s nature, which roots a set of teleologically ordered potentialities the realization of which constitutes the perfection or fulfillment of that thing (SCG 3.2.7; SCG 3.13; SCG 3.16.3; ST 1–2.94.2). Among these potentialities in human beings, for example, are certain cognitive powers whose full flourishing requires that we see. Sight, then, is a perfection for human beings, blindness an evil. An important implication of Aquinas’s account is that evil is always in something good as its subject; or, we might say, evil is parasitic on the good. Since evil is the lack of what something ought to have, it presupposes the something as its subject, and this subject, since it is an actual entity, will, like all actual entities, be good. Since evil presupposes a good subject, neither can it wholly consume the good that it resides in, nor, for the same reason, could there be anything that is wholly or essentially evil through and through (ST 1.48.3–4). Aquinas does allow that we can refer to the subject of a privation as bad or evil. We can say, for example, that eyes unable to see are “bad” eyes, or that an act lacking order to a proper end is a bad act. But the evil of the bad eyes or act consists in the privation, not the subject. The privation is the evil as such (DM 1.1). Recognizing all evil to consist in privation, Aquinas distinguishes two most general categories of evil (ST 1.48.5). A first type involves privations that bear on “the form and integrity” of a thing. Examples include a thing’s lacking the powers it ought to have, as in blindness, or its lacking some integral part, as in an animal’s missing a limb. A second type involves privation in a thing’s operation or activity. Examples of this type include when a plant does not grow deep enough roots, when an animal walks with a limp, or when a man sins. In all such cases, the activity either lacks due order to its proper end, or lacks fitness for achieving its end. Aquinas gives special names to these types of evil when found in free creatures (ST 1.48.5; DM 1.4). Privation of due operation performed voluntarily he calls “evil of fault” (malum culpae) since the voluntary agent is at fault for the defect in its free act. He calls privation of form and integrity in free creatures “evil of penalty” (malum poenae), both because he views such privations as penalties consequent on original and/or personal sin,4 and because these privations have a characteristic feature of punishment in that they are contrary to the will of the afflicted. Of these two sorts of evil, Aquinas thinks evil of fault is worse (ST 1.49.6), for


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our good consists most of all in good voluntary activity (culminating in the activity of seeing God), and so defect in such activity is the more significant evil. For Aquinas, it is far better to suffer evil than to do evil.

The causes of evil Aquinas maintains that evil necessarily has a cause. For a privation exists in a subject that was in potency to the perfection that ought to have been there instead of the privation, and, thus, some cause is needed for why the privation and not the perfection (SCG 3.13.2–3). Indeed, since the good or perfection was natural to the thing, its absence – the unnatural – especially requires a cause (ST 1.49.1). One might suppose that whatever causes evil is itself evil, perhaps even that there is a supreme evil that is the first cause or source of all badness. But this Aquinas thinks impossible. “Only good can be a cause; because nothing can be a cause except inasmuch as it is a being, and every being, as such, is good” (ST 1.49.1). Moreover, a first cause of some feature must have that feature essentially, not derivatively or by participation. But, for Aquinas, to have a feature essentially means simply to be that feature through and through; not to have it as a subject has some feature distinct from itself. Since Aquinas denies that there could be anything that is evil through and through, he also rejects the possibility of a first cause or source of all evil (ST 1.49.3). By insisting that the cause of evil is good, Aquinas does not mean to deny certain senses in which we can call such a cause “evil.” He allows, for example, that something can be called “evil” in a certain respect, or relatively, insofar as it is the cause of privation in another (DM 1.1 ad 1). In this sense, a lion is “evil” from the standpoint of its wounded prey; though, in fact, the lion is dangerous to its prey precisely insofar as the lion is not itself deprived, but rather healthy and thriving. As we saw above, Aquinas also allows that subjects good insofar as they are actual can be called “evil” in virtue of lacking what they ought to have given the kinds of things they are; a broken leg can be called a “bad” leg, so long as we remember that the badness consists in the lack of integrity in the bone structure, not in the leg insofar as it exists and has whatever perfection remains. We shall see that Aquinas explains the privations in some effects in terms of privations in their causes, as a “bad” leg might cause a defect in walking. What he insists on is that privations are never themselves causes. A cause is always something actual and, qua actual, good. Not surprisingly, Aquinas discusses the causes of evil with reference to Aristotle’s four causes (ST 1.49.1). He denies that evil has a formal cause, since evil consists in privation of due form. Nor does evil have a final cause, since it consists in lack of order to the proper end. Evil does have a material cause, for evil always belongs to some subject, and a subject is considered a material cause in relation to that of which it is the subject. Finally, and most importantly, evil has an agent or efficient cause, but – Aquinas insists – only a per accidens, not a per se efficient cause. That evil cannot have a per se efficient cause simply follows from the meanings of the relevant concepts. All per se causes intend their effects either consciously or as a matter of unconscious natural inclination, as fire has a natural tendency to ignite. But anything that is intended is desired and, thus, by definition “good.” So, any per se effect, or effect of a per se cause, is good. Since evil is opposed to good, it follows that any cause of evil must be accidental (per accidens); that is, the evil is not intended or aimed at by the cause (DM 1.3). In discussing the ways that evil can have a per accidens efficient cause, Aquinas returns to the distinction made above between privations that bear on “the form and integrity” of a thing and privations affecting a thing’s operation or activity (ST 1.49.1; DM 1.3). Privations of the latter


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sort result from some prior defect in the principal or instrumental cause. Thus, the limp in an animal’s gait may result either from degeneration of the nervous system or a broken bone. In such a case, the privation in the action is caused per accidens: it is not intended by the animal, which aims only to walk, but rather results from the animal’s walking while in a wounded state. Should we say, then, that the privation in the animal’s nervous system or bone is the cause of the privation in its gait, contrary to Aquinas’s insistence that the cause of evil is not evil, but good. Well, certainly, on Aquinas’s account the preexisting privation plays an explanatory role vis-à-vis the privation in the animal’s movement. But the animal’s wounded state has no power to bring about a privation in its action except insofar as the animal, in virtue of the perfection belonging to it, acts. Thus, while it would be an exaggeration – and a misreading – of Aquinas’s position to say that evil never plays any explanatory role in the cause of evil, it would also be false, in these cases, to say that what caused the evil in the action is simply a privation. Rather, what causes the evil of action is a “deficient cause,” something that exists and operates in virtue of its perfection, but which is deprived in certain ways that result in the operation’s being defective (SCG 3.10.7). In our example, the animal’s wounded state is, of course, a privation bearing on the “form and integrity” of the animal. Aquinas thinks that privations of form and integrity can sometimes be explained by reference to preexisting privations, namely when the privations of form and integrity are due to a deficient cause operating defectively (SCG 3.10.7; DM 1.3). For example, a birth defect (perhaps involving degeneration of the nervous system) could result from the defective operation of the reproductive powers of one or both parents, which defective operation can be explained by reference to a preexisting defect in those powers. In such a case, the birth defect clearly falls outside the aim or intention of the animal and its powers. In other cases, however, privation of form and integrity does not result from a preexisting privation but rather from an agent’s operating in the full perfection of its powers. Such happens: when there necessarily follows on the form intended by the agent the privation of another form; as, for instance, when on the form of fire there follows the privation of the form of air or of water. Hence that evil and corruption befall air and water comes from the perfection of the fire: but this is accidental; because fire does not aim at the privation of the form of water, but at the bringing in of its own form, though by doing this it also accidentally causes the other. (ST 1.49.1; cf. DM 1.3) Or, in connection with our example above, a virus might cause privation in a nervous system not through any deficiency on its own part but simply through using host cells in the nervous system to replicate, which process has as an accidental by-product the corruption of those cells. Such examples show that, on Aquinas’s view, many privations of form and integrity can be explained by one thing flourishing at the expense of another. The successful activity of the fire and the virus result in the deprivation of the water and the nervous system, even though the deprivation is not the aim of the fire or virus. Among privations that bear on operation or activity, Aquinas treats the cause of moral evil (or sin) as a special case. On the one hand, like other defective actions, the privation in a sinful act – the act’s lack of conformity to the moral rule – needs to be explained with reference to a preexisting or explanatorily prior defect in the agent. On the other hand, there are constraints on the nature of this preexisting defect that do not arise when explaining other defective actions. First, the preexisting defect needs to be rooted in the will, and voluntary, otherwise the sinner


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would not be responsible and at fault for the resulting defect in his act. Yet, second, the preexisting defect cannot itself constitute a sin, for, in that case, we would merely push the question of the cause of sin a step back, requiring an explanation for this preexisting sin, and courting an infinite regress in our attempt to explain sin, if every sin had to be explained by a preexisting sin (SCG 3.10; DM 1.3). Aquinas solves the problem by identifying the explanatorily prior defect in the sinful agent with the sinner’s nonconsideration or nonuse of the moral rule prior to choice. On the one hand, the nonconsideration of the moral rule is voluntary, since it is freely within the will’s power to consider the rule. On the other hand, the nonconsideration is not itself a sin; for: the soul is not bound nor is it always possible to actually give heed to a rule of this kind. . . . [Thus] the fault of the will does not consist in not actually giving heed to the rule of reason or divine law but in proceeding to choose without employing the rule or measure. (DM 1.3; cf. SCG 3.10.17) Moreover, just as in ordinary cases of defective action the efficient cause does not intend the privation that results from its acting in a wounded state, so neither does the sinner intend the privation that consists in his act’s lack of conformity to the moral rule. What the sinner intends is some good or apparent good that he hopes to achieve through his action. The adulterer’s aim is pleasure, not that his act be disordered (DM 1.3, SCG 3.6.9). Sin results from the sinner’s not considering or applying the moral rule, which consideration would prevent him from performing an act contrary to his true good, for the sake of a lesser or apparent good.

Evil and God Most contemporary discussion of evil and God focuses on the so-called problem of evil. But, as mentioned in the introduction, there is some debate about whether Aquinas even recognized or attempted to answer the problem as it is nowadays understood. Certainly, Aquinas did not seriously consider that the world’s evil might give us reason to deny the existence of an allpowerful, wholly good God. He believed the existence of such a God was demonstrable; an account of evil, thus, has to accommodate itself to the fact of God’s existence, known not only to faith but also to reason.5 Yet, it isn’t simply Aquinas’s confidence in God’s existence that has led some to question whether Aquinas would take the contemporary problem of evil seriously. Brian Davies writes that: If we take the problem of evil to be expressed by the question, “How can God justify himself morally for the evil that exists?,” Aquinas would dismiss it as a pseudoproblem . . . a bogus one. . . . For Aquinas, to ask whether God can be morally justified when it comes to the evils that occur is to ask a question that should never have been raised in the first place. For him, God is not to be thought of as a moral agent behaving either well or badly.6 As Davies sees it, the difficulty is not that it would be impious to doubt God’s moral goodness (or his very existence) in light of the world’s evil, or conversely to take it upon ourselves to justify God morally for his permission of evil. The problem is that Aquinas doesn’t understand


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God’s goodness to be moral goodness in the first place, and thus the question of whether God can be morally justified is not one Aquinas would think it makes sense to ask. Much of Davies’s interpretation, and of those who take a similar line,7 rests on considerations regarding Aquinas’s understanding of morality, on the one hand, and his understanding of God, on the other. For Aquinas, morality is about what people ought to do, and the virtues they need to acquire, in order to achieve their fulfillment as human beings. Morality presupposes a gap, as it were, between the person and his full perfection, a gap that must be closed by action. But, for Aquinas’s God, there is no gap – since he is pure act and has his end and fulfillment in himself. There is nothing God “ought to do” concerning evil or anything else. The “moral,” so understood, is not a category that applies in God’s case. Further support for Davies’s interpretation might be found in the fact that, when Aquinas takes up the question of God’s goodness (ST 1.6.1–3; SCG 1.37–41), he does not define that goodness, as many contemporary theistic philosophers do, in terms of morality. There is no mention of moral goodness at all. Rather, God is deemed supremely good because supremely desirable, as the ultimate source of all desired perfections. Yet, further support for Davies’s interpretation might be claimed from the fact that, if his interpretation is correct, it explains why Aquinas offers nothing comparable to the extensive theodicies and defenses of God offered in abundance by contemporary theistic philosophers, who, understanding God’s goodness in moral terms, feel the need to explain how God might be morally justified for permitting the world’s evils. Nevertheless, other scholars have argued, on the contrary, that Aquinas does think of God as morally good, and that we can even speak of Aquinas as offering a theodicy in response to the problem of evil.8 Support for this view might be found in passages where Aquinas explicitly attributes certain virtues to God, such as justice and liberality (e.g., SCG 1.93). It might also be found in passages where Aquinas appears to take seriously what sounds very much like the problem of evil, or where he appears to offer reasons for God’s permitting evil, as one might do if one were attempting to reconcile that permission with God’s goodness, understood morally. For example, in the article in which Aquinas offers his famous five ways of demonstrating God’s existence, he poses to himself the following objection: It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word “God” means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist. (ST 1.2.3 obj. 1) To this Aquinas responds: As Augustine says (Enchir. xi): Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil. This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good. (ST 1.2.3 ad 1) Or consider a similar objection, which Aquinas poses to himself when asking whether evil is to be found in things: “The good unmixed with evil is the greater good. But God makes


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always what is best. . . . Therefore, in things made by God there is no evil” (ST 1.48.2 obj. 3). To this Aquinas responds: God and nature and any other agent make what is best in the whole but not what is best in every single part, except in order to the whole. And the whole itself, which is the universe of creatures, is all the better and more perfect if some things in it can fail in goodness, and do sometimes fail, God not preventing this. . . . Hence many good things would be taken away if God permitted no evil to exist; for fire would not be generated if air was not corrupted, nor would the life of a lion be preserved unless the ass were killed. Neither would avenging justice nor the patience of a sufferer be praised if there were no injustice. (ST 1.48.2 ad 3; cf. ST 1.22.2 ad 2; and SCG 3.71) Also relevant is Aquinas’s commentary on the book of Job where he seems to recognize the suffering of the just as a challenge to the claim that God exercises providence over human affairs: “Now what especially seems to impugn God’s providence where human affairs are concerned is the affliction of just men” (68). In response to Job’s famous “The Lord has given; the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21), Aquinas praises Job not only for recognizing God’s providence in these matters but also for recognizing that “man has no just complaint with God if he should be despoiled of his temporal goods because He Who gave them freely could bestow them either for a time or to the end” (89). Throughout the commentary, Aquinas does not shy away from offering reasons for God’s permission of evil: “Now it happens sometimes that God permits either trials or even some spiritual defects to befall some men in order to procure their salvation” (172).9 Davies, of course, is aware of such passages. Much depends on their significance. For example, would the meaning of the virtues as predicated of God by Aquinas enable someone, even in principle, to argue a case that the virtues so defined do not apply to God, in light of the world’s evil? If not, then God’s virtues for Aquinas do not constitute the sort of moral goodness that would be needed to make sense of the problem of evil as contemporary philosophers understand it. Similarly, are the objections Aquinas poses to himself in the passages quoted above the same as the contemporary problem? Are Aquinas’s brief responses best understood as offering a moral justification of God’s permission of evil? Is the commentary on Job offering a theodicy, or should it be read in some other way? Answering such questions would require a lengthier treatment, but these are the sorts of questions that need answering to determine whether Aquinas takes (or would take) the problem of evil in its contemporary form seriously. However one resolves the foregoing debate, there are certain points Aquinas clearly wants to make regarding God’s relationship to evil. A key principle, for Aquinas, is that a provider, governor, or artisan looks out for the good of the whole – and not just the parts – of that over which he has charge, and will permit defects in the parts for the sake of the whole. And, whether or not his point is to offer a moral justification for God, Aquinas clearly thinks that God permits evil because the universe as a whole is more perfect for containing it (see ST 1.48.2 ad 3; ST 1.22.2 ad 2; and SCG 3.71). As noted already, he thinks that many goods would be taken away, were there no evil: not only goods of the sort mentioned in the passage from ST 1.48.2 ad 3, quoted above, but also the beauty of the universe, which “arises from an ordered unification of evil and good things” (SCG 3.71.7), the possibility of some creatures’ being more God-like from having greater perfection than others (SCG 3.71.3), and


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the possibility of creatures truly appreciating the good; for “the good is better known from its comparison with evil, and while we continue to suffer certain evils our desire for goods grows more ardent” (SCG 3.71.8). Moreover, Aquinas thinks God creates both to share his goodness with creatures, and that his goodness might be reflected by them. But, since God’s simple and infinite goodness cannot be adequately represented by a single creature or type of creature, he creates a multitude of different kinds of creatures, occupying different grades of goodness (ST 1.47.1–2). One level of goodness belongs to material creatures that come into existence through generation and pass out through corruption, and whose interaction with one another in regular, predictable ways involves the flourishing of some at the expense of others. The universe is more perfect, and better reflects God’s goodness, for containing such creatures, but its containing such creatures brings privation as a necessary accompaniment (ST 1.22.2 ad 2). It is important to note that, with his talk of God’s permitting evil for the sake of the perfection of the universe, Aquinas does not anticipate the Leibnizian position that ours is the best possible world, which God necessarily creates precisely because it is the best. On the contrary, Aquinas thinks that God could have created a different world, or no world at all. Moreover, given God’s infinite power and goodness, Aquinas denies that there is a best possible world among those God could create. For any world God could create, he could create a better one, either a world containing greater kinds of things10 or a world with the same kinds of things enjoying greater accidental perfections. In this respect, Aquinas thinks that God could do better than he does considered “substantively;” i.e., he could make a better world. But he could not do better than he does considered “adverbially.” That is, the manner of God’s making could not be improved upon since, even in a case where God creates a better world, God would not be creating from any greater wisdom or goodness, and thus God’s manner of acting would not be any better than it is in his creation of our world (ST 1.25.5–6). From what was said in the previous section, it should be clear that Aquinas denies that God is a per se cause of evil; for any per se effect is an object of appetite, and therefore something good, evil’s opposite. Whether God is a per accidens cause of evil depends on the type of evil we are talking about. Aquinas allows that God is a per accidens cause of privations of “form and integrity.” For, in virtue of God’s causing the good of the order of the universe, he causes without intending the privations that follow on that order, insofar as that order includes some things that flourish at the expense of others (ST 1.49.2). On the other hand, Aquinas denies that God is even a per accidens cause of privations that bear on operation or activity. Although as the universal cause of all that exists apart from himself God causes all creaturely operations insofar as they are actual and have whatever perfection belongs to them (ST 1.44.1–2; SCG 3.67), the cause of the defects in these activities is explained by prior defects in the creaturely causes (ST 1.49.2 ad 2). Aquinas is especially insistent that God does not cause sin (ST 1–2.79.1; DM 3.1), even while also insisting that God causes the act of sin (ST 1–2.79.2; DM 3.2). How can God cause the latter without causing the former? For Aquinas, a sin of action consists of two elements: an act and a defect or privation, the act’s lack of conformity to the moral rule. To cause the sin, an agent must cause both the act and the privation. But, while God and the sinner both cause the act, only the sinner causes the privation; thus, only the sinner causes the sin. God, as universal cause, need not cause the privation, since privations aren’t actually existing entities. And, as we’ve seen, Aquinas thinks the privation is imputable to the sinner in virtue of a prior voluntary but nonsinful defect in the sinner, the sinner’s failure to consider or apply the moral rule, which consideration would have precluded the sinful choice (SCG III.10; DM 1.3).


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Objections and replies Aquinas’s account of evil continues to be of interest to philosophers, enjoying contemporary defenders while at the same time being the target of various objections to which its defenders have attempted to reply. This section offers a brief introduction to these debates. The most basic sort of objection targets Aquinas’s ontology of evil, challenging his contention that all evil is privation by proposing counterexamples to the claim.11 The most commonly proposed counterexamples are pain and certain types of moral evil. Pain seems to be not just the absence of pleasure but a positively bad sensation – something that exists which we recognize as bad and try to avoid. Similarly, it would seem that not all moral evil can be analyzed simply as the absence of our doing what we ought. A murder is not just the neglect of a duty but a positive act with positive properties that make the act bad, such as the intent to kill someone who is innocent. Such moral evils, moreover, appear to be positively and aggressively opposed to the good in ways that seem inconsistent with the claim that they are mere lacks or absences. Defenders of the privation account maintain that their view can accommodate these types of evil. They point out, for example, that sensations of pain have an important function to play in the life of an organism, namely to alert the organism to an injury that has occurred, urging it to seek remediation. As such, painful sensations are good, part of the functioning of a healthy animal without which the animal would be in serious danger. The sensation of pain is repugnant to the animal, but that repugnance is needed to perform its function; it is good for pain to be unpleasant since that is how it does its job. Granted, the unpleasantness of pain can outstrip its usefulness, can disrupt tranquility, can even be seriously debilitating. But, in these cases, though the pain may be a cause of evil, it is not the evil itself. Rather, the evil in such cases is the privation in the animal’s normal functioning, for example the debilitation that results from the pain.12 With respect to moral evil, Aquinas, as we’ve seen, thinks a sin of action consists of two elements, the positive act and the privation of conformity to the moral rule, in which the badness or sinfulness of the act consists. It is, consequently, no criticism of Aquinas to accuse him of trying to account for moral evil without reference to acts and their properties. On the privation account, we can even speak of certain properties of acts as making the acts bad, insofar as they are the properties in respect of which the acts lack conformity to the moral rule. And we can speak of certain acts as opposed to certain goods, insofar as the moral rule requires respect for goods that these acts fail to respect. Yet, so defenders of Aquinas claim, none of these points entails that the badness of sins of action consists in the acts or their properties rather than the privation of conformity to the moral standard. On the contrary, they have held that, since the fundamental reason the acts are morally bad is their lack of conformity to the moral standard, their badness is more fittingly identified with that lack than with the act’s positive properties. This is especially so when it is considered that an act is morally bad for having certain properties only because acts that have those properties lack conformity to the standard.13 Turning to Aquinas’s views on the causes of evil, at least three recent objections have targeted his explanation of the cause of the privation in sinful acts in terms of the sinner’s nonconsideration of the moral rule.14 First, Aquinas holds the sinner responsible for not considering the rule at the moment the sinner chooses the sinful act. But, to make sense of the sinner’s responsibility for not considering the rule, the sinner would need to be consciously aware that there was a rule pertaining to his action, which would imply conscious awareness of the content of the rule, which would in turn imply that the sinner was considering the rule, after all, contrary to Aquinas’s intent to explain the sin in terms of the sinner’s nonconsideration of the rule. Second, to hold the sinner responsible for not considering the rule would seem to presuppose that agents are obliged to consider the moral rule for every action they perform, a requirement 50

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too demanding to be plausible. Third, that the agent is not considering the rule prior to the sinful action seems (contrary to Aquinas’s intent) irrelevant to the explanation of sin, since Aquinas states explicitly that the sinner isn’t bound to consider the rule except at the very moment he proceeds to the sinful choice without it. In response to each of these objections, points have been made in Aquinas’s defense.15 To the first, it has been argued that the sinner’s responsibility for not considering the rule at the moment of sinful choice does not require (as would be contradictory) that the sinner be occurrently aware of, or considering, that very rule. All that is required is that the sinner be aware that his actions are subject to moral standards and that he should therefore turn attention to his dispositional knowledge of the rules bearing on his actions, or enquire into the relevant rule if it is not already part of his dispositional knowledge. Against the second objection, it has been maintained that the requirement to consider the moral rule for all of our actions is not implausibly burdensome once it is realized that we do not have to enquire about the rule from scratch for each action, but can rely for most of our actions on past reasoning and dispositional knowledge ready at hand. To the third objection, it has been pointed out that the relevance of the prior nonconsideration of the rule is to show how sin is possible, since Aquinas doesn’t believe it would be possible to commit a sin while consciously considering (or grasping) the rule against it. In this sense, the nonconsideration is explanatorily prior to the sinful act, and also temporally prior in that, at the moment of the sin, the sinner must no longer be considering the rule, even if he was considering it at some point before the moment of sin. Thus, the nonconsideration of the rule has an explanatory role to play even though the sinner is not bound to be considering the rule prior to the moment he proceeds to the sinful choice without such consideration. Turning to Aquinas’s views regarding evil and God, much critical attention has focused on Aquinas’s claim that God, as universal cause, can cause the act of sin without causing sin itself. In order to get the problem up and running, we must allow for the sake of argument that God can cause creaturely acts without taking away the freedom requisite for moral responsibility. Allowing that, a first objection holds that God will cause the privation in the act of sin simply in virtue of causing the act and its positive properties. After all, it is because the act and its properties are what they are that the act lacks conformity to the moral rule, and thus has the privation that makes it sinful. Moreover, this privation would seem simply to follow on the act and its properties.16 A second objection raises doubts that the privation in the act of sin can be imputed to the sinner in light of his voluntary nonconsideration of the rule (which makes the sinful choice possible) without its also being imputable to God. For, on Aquinas’s understanding of the relationship between divine and creaturely agency, it looks like, if God had caused the creature’s consideration of the rule at the relevant time, the creature would have considered the rule, and no sin would have occurred. Thus, if the privation can be imputed to the sinner in virtue of the sinner’s not considering the rule, why can’t it be imputed to God, in virtue of God’s not causing the sinner’s consideration?17 In response to the first of these objections,18 it has been argued that God’s causing the act of sin and its positive properties is not enough to make him cause of the act’s lack of conformity to the moral standard, any more than Elizabeth’s making an omelet that weighs so many ounces makes her the cause of her omelet’s being heavier than a sandwich made by Cecilia. Just as Elizabeth has made only one of the terms on which the relational truth that her omelet is heavier that Cecilia’s sandwich depends, so, arguably, God has caused only one of the terms (the act and its properties) that, together with the moral standard, gives rise to the act’s lack of conformity to that standard. This response requires, of course, that we deny that God causes the other term, the moral standard, from which, together with the act and its properties, the 51

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act’s lack of conformity emerges. But, plausibly, Aquinas would agree that God does not cause the moral standard, insofar as Aquinas thinks the moral standard is ultimately rooted in human nature which is an objective way in which the divine being is imitable, prior to any act of the divine will (ST 1.15.2). Jacques Maritain famously attempted to answer the second objection by arguing that when God causes a creaturely action he always moves the creature to a good act, a good act that will result from God’s motion, unless the creature “shatters” or impedes the divine motion by not considering the moral rule. Since God moves the creature to a good act, which becomes bad only because of the creature’s nonconsideration of the rule, Maritain holds that we can credit God in the case of a good act, while imputing the privation in a bad act to the sinner alone. The sinner is responsible for the privation in virtue of his nonconsideration of the rule, which nonconsideration, of course, is not a positive act or entity, and thus, unlike the act of sin itself, need not be caused by God as universal cause.19 Even some sympathetic with Maritain’s general goals have raised doubts about the success of his solution. For, given Aquinas’s account of the relationship between divine and creaturely agency, the creature does not consider the rule only if God does not cause the creature’s considering it. Thus, the question remains: Why shouldn’t the privation in the act of sin be imputed to God in virtue of God’s not causing the creature’s considering the rule, just as it is imputed to the creature in virtue of the creature’s not considering it?20 One response to this remaining question focuses on what Aquinas has to say regarding causing by nonperformance. According to Aquinas, an agent causes something by its nonperformance if and only if (1) had the agent performed the act in question the effect in question would not (or not likely) have obtained, and (2) the agent ought to have performed the act in question (ST 1–2.6.3). So, for example, we explain why the dough didn’t rise by the failure of the baker to put yeast in. But we wouldn’t explain it by the failure of the custodian to put yeast in, for it is not something the custodian ought to have done, even though his having done it would have also resulted in the dough’s rising. Applying these principles to the issue at hand, we can impute the privation in the act of sin to the sinner, because the sinner ought to have considered the rule, and, had he done so, the sinful act with its privation would not have occurred. But we cannot impute the privation to God in virtue of God’s not causing the sinner to consider the rule. For, if God does not cause the sinner to consider the rule, then it wasn’t something God ought to have done. And that point follows simply from the fact that – as Aquinas and all other theists agree – God never fails to do what he ought.21 It should be clear from this brief introduction that Aquinas’s treatment of evil remains a topic of lively and challenging philosophical discussion. The richness of his ideas will ensure that this discussion will continue into the foreseeable future.

Notes 1 See Chapter 2 in this volume for a detailed discussion of Augustine on evil. 2 For a helpful discussion of influences on Aquinas’s account, see O’Rourke 2016. For a helpful general overview of Aquinas on the metaphysics of evil, see Wippel 2016. 3 See Aquinas 1993, 71–4. 4 Aquinas holds that our first parents (Adam and Eve) were created in a state of grace (original justice) in which their reason was subject to God, their passions to reason, their bodies to their souls, and in which they possessed all the virtues (ST 1.95.1–3). Moreover, they enjoyed certain accompanying privileges that go beyond human natural capacities, and which would have been handed on to their children had the parents not sinned; for example, though naturally mortal and subject to afflictions, Adam and Eve (unlike nonrational animals) were given supernatural gifts of immortality and preservation from bodily


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5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

harm (ST 1.97.1–2; ST 1–2.85.6; ST 1.96.1 ad 2). Both the state of grace and the privileges were lost to Adam and Eve and their progeny as a result of the first sin.Thus, for Aquinas, all human evil is ultimately either sin or a penalty consequent on sin (DM 1.4; ST 1–2.85.5). Aquinas takes himself to have demonstrated God’s existence, for example in the first 25 or so questions of the Summa theologiae. Davies 2011, 113–14. See, for example, McCabe 2010, 104–12; and Feser 2009, 125–6. See, for example, Shanley 2002, 93 and 115–16; and Stump 2010, 375. For a helpful overview of Aquinas’s commentary on Job, see Nutt 2015. For an application to questions of theodicy, see Stump 1996. Though he thinks no created thing could surpass the humanity of Christ, or Mary, the mother of God, whose special relationships to God convey an infinite dignity (see ST 1.25.6 ad 4). See, for instance, Calder 2007, Crosby 2002, and Crosby 2007. See Lee 2000, 257–60; Lee 2007, 473–9; Alexander 2012, 100–108; and Samet 2012. See Grant 2015, and Lee 2007, 479–86. For these objections, see Barnwell 2015, 283–7. For these points, see Jensen 2018. See Newlands 2014, 287–290. Newlands discusses such objections as they arise in the early Leibniz. See Grant 2009, 477–8. See Grant 2017, 132–8. See Maritain 1966, 38–43. See Grant 2009, 480. See Grant 2009, 480–91.

References Alexander, D.E. (2012) Goodness, God, and Evil, London: Continuum. Aquinas, St. Thomas. (1975) Summa Contra Gentiles, trans. A.C. Pegis et al., Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. Aquinas, St. Thomas. (1981) Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Westminster, MD: Christian Classics. Aquinas, St. Thomas. (1989) The Literal Exposition on Job, trans. A. Damico, Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press. Aquinas, St. Thomas. (1993) On the Principles of Nature, trans. T. McDermott, in Aquinas: Selected Philosophical Writings, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 67–80. Aquinas, St. Thomas. (1995) On Evil, trans. J. Oesterle, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. Barnwell, M. (2015) “The Problem with Aquinas’s Original Discovery,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 89(2), pp. 277–91. Calder, T.C. (2007) “Is the Privation Theory of Evil Dead?” American Philosophical Quarterly 44(4), pp. 371–81. Crosby, J.F. (2002) “Is All Evil Only Privation?” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 75, pp. 197–209. Crosby, J.F. (2007) “Doubts About the Privation Theory That Will Not Go Away: Response to Patrick Lee,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 81(3), pp. 489–505. Davies, B. (2011), Thomas Aquinas on God and Evil, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Dougherty, M.V. (2016), Aquinas’s Disputed Questions on Evil: A Critical Guide, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Feser, E. (2009), Aquinas, Oxford: Oneworld. Grant, W.M. (2009) “Aquinas On How God Causes the Act of Sin Without Causing Sin Itself,” The Thomist 73(3), pp. 455–96. Grant, W.M. (2015) “The Privation Account of Moral Evil: A Defense,” International Philosophical Quarterly 55(3), pp. 271–86. Grant, W.M. (2017) “Moral Evil, Privation, and God,” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 9(1), pp. 125–45. Jensen, S. (2018) “Aquinas’s Original Discovery: A Reply to Barnwell,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 92(1), pp. 73–95. Lee, P. (2000) “The Goodness of Creation, Evil, and Christian Teaching,” The Thomist 64, pp. 239–69.


W. Matthews Grant Lee, P. (2007) “Evil as Such Is a Privation: A Reply to John Crosby,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 81(3), pp. 469–88. Maritain, J. (1966) God and the Permission of Evil, Milwaukee, WI: Bruce. McCabe, H. (2010) God and Evil in the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, London: Continuum. Newlands, S. (2014) “Leibniz on Privations, Limitations, and the Metaphysics of Evil,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 52(2), pp. 281–308. Nutt, R.W. (2015) “Providence, Wisdom, and the Justice of Job’s Afflictions: Considerations from Aquinas’ Literal Exposition on Job,” Heythrop Journal LVI, pp. 44–66. O’Rourke, F. (2016) “Evil as Privation: the Neoplatonic Background to Aquinas’s De malo, I,” in Aquinas’s Disputed Questions on Evil: A Critical Guide, ed. M.V. Dougherty, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 192–221. Samet, I. (2012) “On Pain and the Privation Theory of Evil,” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 4(1), pp. 19–34. Shanley O.P., B.J. (2002) The Thomist Tradition, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic. Stump, E. (1996) “Aquinas on the Sufferings of Job,” in The Evidential Argument from Evil, ed. D. HowardSnyder, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, pp. 49–68. Stump, E. (2010) Wandering in Darkness, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Wippel, J.F. (2016) “Metaphysical Themes in De malo, I,” in Dougherty 2016, pp. 12–33.


4 MACHIAVELLI The drama of politics and its inherent evil Giovanni Giorgini

According to the Bible, the serpent tempted Eve, suggesting that by eating the forbidden fruit she and Adam would become “like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Knowledge of good and evil is God’s prerogative, in the sense that God determines what is good and evil; human beings have moral discernment, which enables them to identify what is good but by eating the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve want to go further, to decide for themselves what is good or evil. They reject their condition of “creatures” and want to become “makers,” creators of values. Machiavelli did not have any such ambition, despite a long interpretative tradition that sees him as a “teacher of evil” and a subverter of traditional (Christian) morality.1 In fact, Machiavelli was not the bearer of a new morality for humankind, the herald of a “transvaluation of all values,” nor was he the thinker who separated morality from politics, justifying politically what is morally condemnable. These statements are grounded on the observation that the words “good” and “evil” retain their usual meaning in his works nor is there any dispensation from ordinary morality for statesmen. Machiavelli’s original contribution rather consists in the discovery that politics has a distinct dimension of duty that, in exceptional cases, forces the statesman to commit actions that collide with moral and religious imperatives. Machiavelli discloses to his readers that, contrary to the popular, naive opinion that statesmen can do what they wish, politics is in fact the realm of necessity because statesmen are often forced to choose between evil alternatives and opt for the lesser evil. This fact reveals the dramatic side of the political realm, which should be known, and eventually accepted, by Machiavelli’s reader, the prospective statesman. Machiavelli was also a man of letters and, after being deprived of all public office (post res perditas, as he sadly remarked), he described himself as a poet and very often compared life and politics to a theater. It is in this grand theater of life that the drama of politics is performed and it is here that Machiavelli imparts his most dramatic lesson to his readers: the “seriousness of politics.”2 Politics is a serious matter; differently from other spheres of human activity such as art, economy, or even morality, where the negative outcome of an action affects only the agent or causes limited damages such as loss of money or an ugly sculpture, politics is the realm where decisions are made which affect thousands of people, whose life or death depends on the statesman’s capacity to make the right decision. A person who enters politics must accept the responsibility which comes with public service and must be aware that he is entering a path which may lead him to infringe upon his own ethical and religious considerations, with 55

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the result of damning his own soul.3 Machiavelli thus operated a dramatic turn from the Christian teaching, for he disclosed that the duty to rule responsibly and the goal of personal salvation could not be pursued together. Being “good” in politics means being determined to act for the common good of the state and this often entails making decisions and committing actions that are morally evil and remain so: very often, then, the good prince cannot but be a bad Christian.4 It is useful to remember here just how strong the orthodox view concerning morality and politics was at the time Machiavelli was writing. Good politics was simply doing what a good religious person ought to do in obeying God’s commandments: ethical and religious commandments translated immediately into political precepts that inspired the statesman’s action. Machiavelli’s break with this view of politics was extraordinary and deeply shocking at the time.5

Machiavelli’s world In order to assess Machiavelli’s departure from the traditional view of politics of his days we should first of all examine Machiavelli’s world so that we can ascertain the role played by evil in it. To begin with, Machiavelli is interested in evil as concerns human matters. He shows to be quite uninterested in the metaphysical question of theodicy, namely the origin and existence of evil in the universe and the role of God in it. He notoriously maintained that “I judge the world always to have been in the same mode and there to have been as much good as wicked in it” (Discourses II, Preface); what he is thinking of is political virtue and political wickedness. As it is made clear by what follows, the “vices” of our times are the lack of “observance of religion, of laws, and of the military,” which are not moral flaws but have practical import. In Machiavelli’s judgment the world did not consistently improve or decline; there was not a general progress or declension but rather its goodness remained the same; what changed over time was the “allocation” of virtue and vice. Machiavelli was indeed convinced that human things are always in motion and therefore must necessarily either ascend or descend;6 likewise, the wicked and the good, namely political virtue and vice, “vary from province to province” but this motion is not determined only by chance: human beings, and especially statesmen, can influence it through their virtue, by laying down good laws and institutions that will regulate human passions. For Machiavelli there is no ultimate sense in history; there is no meaningful motion, forward or backward, that can be detected even by the acutest observer. On the other hand, there is neither a deterministic force acting in the universe and human beings can therefore print their mark on history. For instance, the sad contemporary condition of Italy, especially as compared to the glory days of Roman power, was not the result of the inevitable decline that follows a peak: it is imputable to the low quality of Italian politicians, which is in its turn a product of the bad education and the vicious examples of the Roman Church.7 Although uninterested in questions of theodicy, Machiavelli was also a philosopher and had a metaphysical view of the condition of mankind in the world. He addressed this question obliquely while examining the issue of the eternity of the world in a puzzling chapter of the Discourses (II, 5).8 There he maintained that the world is eternal (thus implicitly rejecting Christian creationism) and subject to periodical natural disasters such as floods, plagues, and famines. These calamities force the few survivors, “mountain men and coarse,” to recreate civilization almost from scratch; this line of progress continues up to the point when human beings are too many or too wicked and nature again intervenes in order to “purge” the world, reducing the number of men and improving their moral quality, “so that men, through having become few and beaten, may live more advantageously and become better” (Discourses II, 5). This narration entails a vision of an original, simple morality of the survivors taken after classical 56


authors such as Plato and Cicero.9 It also implies that growing civilization brings complexity and moral deviousness with it. Machiavelli is persuaded that the age he lives in is a time of moral complexity; his contemporary statesmen should acknowledge this fact and thus relinquish all hope of translating, simply and immediately, moral qualities into political virtue. Having maintained that human beings are not deterministically maneuvered by some force or nature, Machiavelli goes on to argue that men’s free will is still constrained by the way the world is made, its inherent necessity and imperfection. We may consider this notion Machiavelli’s closest approximation to a metaphysical view, a view strongly influenced by classical authors and especially by Plato.10 In Discourses I, 6, Machiavelli offers to his reader one of his “general rules,” which discloses his image of the world: “In all human things he who examines well sees this: that one inconvenience can never be suppressed without another’s cropping up.” This idea is paralleled by an observation put in the very last chapter of the Discourses. Here, after so many recommendations to his reader about how to create and maintain a free republic, Machiavelli pensively comments that “It is of necessity, as was said other times, that in a great city accidents arise every day that have need of a physician” (Discourses III, 49). We should read these statements on the background of the observation that “It appears that in the actions of men, as we have discoursed of another time, besides the other difficulties in wishing to bring a thing to its perfection, one finds that close to the good there is always some evil that arises with that good”; there are things “that have the evil so close to the good, and so much are they joined together that it is an easy thing to take one, believing one has picked the other” (Discourses III, 37). Human matters are characterized by their imperfection and instability and by the closeness and combination of good and evil. It is in this realm of imperfection that the statesman acts: his force resides in his virtue, his capacity to identify the right course of action in the circumstances, while his nemesis is labeled with the evocative name of fortuna. Fortuna, the obscure force in history that summarizes everything that is beyond man’s control, must be accounted for by any prudent statesman who plans to do “great things,” namely creating, maintaining, and aggrandizing a state.11 The relation between man’s virtue and the influence of fortuna is a central theme in Machiavelli’s thought, on which he labored his entire life. Indeed, already at the time when he sent a letter to Giovan Battista Soderini (September 1506) known as the Ghiribizzi al Soderino Machiavelli elaborated the theory of riscontro, or “match,” to explain success and failure in political action: a man must “match” his times, namely human action must be aligned to the historical conditions of the age. Human actions do not happen in a void and this makes it difficult to give general rules in politics: the statesman should therefore possess “virtue,” namely the capacity to identify what the circumstances require of him. This theme is explored in depth in Machiavelli’s two major political works, with certain inconsistencies which reveal how profoundly the subject tortured Machiavelli’s mind. In the Prince fortuna appears to be the opposite of virtue, in that she (“fortune is a woman”!) is the obscure and unpredictable force in history that contrasts human agency. Machiavelli duly instructs his reader that “Those who become princes from private individual solely by fortune become so with little trouble, but maintain themselves with much” and choses Cesare Borgia as example. This seems appropriate since the duke Valentino “acquired his state through the fortune of his father and lost it through the same,” although he had done everything that a “prudent and virtuous man” should do to give solid foundations to his power. After reviewing his actions Machiavelli emphatically states that: I do not know what better teaching I could give to a new prince than the example of his actions. And if his orders did not bring profit to him, it was not his fault, because this arose from an extraordinary and extreme malignity of fortune. 57

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At the end of the chapter Machiavelli reiterates that: If I summed up all the actions of the duke, I would not know how to reproach him; on the contrary, it seems to me he should be put forward, as I have done, to be imitated by all those who have risen to empire through fortune and by the arms of others. It is at this point that the shocking conclusion comes: Machiavelli reproaches the duke Valentino for the election of Pope Julius II Della Rovere, a fierce enemy of the Borgias, and concludes: “So the duke erred in this choice and it was the cause of his ultimate ruin” (Prince 7). Misjudgment, not lack of fortune, was thus to blame. Then, the last chapter in the Prince before the Exhortatory Letter is devoted to the role of fortune in human affairs. Here again fortuna is presented as the resisting force to prudent human action12 and Machiavelli elaborates the theory of the “quality of the times”: circumstances require human beings to act accordingly and the two different modes of behavior are “impetuous” or “cautious.”13 Men must thus be able to adapt to the circumstances and their actions must match the contingent requirements. However, here again Machiavelli concludes against his reasoning in the entire chapter: “I judge this to be good,” the best course consists in acting impetuously in all circumstances in order to beat fortune (Prince 25). This impression is confirmed by a philosophically dense chapter in the Discourses, devoted to demonstrating that “Fortune blinds the spirits of men when she does not wish them to oppose her plans” (II, 29). Here Machiavelli sums up his opinion about “how human affairs proceed.” He begins by saying that certain “accidents” clearly show “the power of heaven over human affairs” but then goes on to say that fortune choses a man of great virtue, able to recognize the favorable occasion, in order to accomplish great deeds. Machiavelli ends the chapter stating something “very true” and confirmed by history, namely that men can follow the ways of fortune without opposing her and should never despair because fortune has “oblique and unknown” ways. The end is undetermined and history is open to human action. It is safe to conclude, then, that Machiavelli’s final judgment about the role of fate in human affairs sees the preeminence of human virtue over fortune. A force always to be considered by the wise statesman, fortune eventually yields before human prudence and determination.

Evil in politics: corruption, which generates tyranny We are now in a better position to examine Machiavelli’s view of evil in politics. Since the human world is imperfect, evil is an inherent presence in it. Political arrangements are devised first to enable human beings to live and then to live well. Human beings originally congregate spontaneously to survive the adversities of nature and, in their interactions, they elaborate the notions of good and bad, useful and noxious, and then that of justice (Discourses I, 2). With justice come laws and institutions, which are necessary because men are not all good, honest, and compassionate: political arrangements are therefore necessary and Machiavelli is persuaded that without them not even bare life is possible, let alone a virtuous or flourishing life. This is the reason why preserving the state, defending it from external enemies and not allowing it to be torn apart by factional strife, must be the supreme consideration for the statesman. Machiavelli subscribes completely to the view first found in Thucydides and then canonized in the Roman Laws of the Twelve Tables in the sentence salus reipublicae suprema lex esto.14 In this view the subsistence of the state is the common good of the citizens; it is also the primary and overarching good, since without the state there is anarchy and might makes right. Evil in politics is thus anything that imperils and destroys the state. Since the state is the common good, Machiavelli identifies evil with the private interest, which tears the community 58


apart and paves the way to the utter negation of politics – tyranny. This is a very important but often misconstrued point, for Machiavelli self-consciously has a very unusual position: looking at the Roman experience and at the situation of his days, Machiavelli believes that in every political arrangement there typically are two factions (or “humors” as he describes them using a bodily metaphor) – the few and the many, the rich noble and the poor commoners. It is only natural that these two factions have different, conflicting purposes: the nobles want to dominate and the people want to be left alone, have their property and family safe, and be in the condition to live their life safely.15 Machiavelli thus believes that conflict, not harmony, is the natural condition for a state; even more strikingly, and contrary to a long tradition of political thought that considered civil strife a deadly ailment of the body politic, he believes that conflict is salutary for it preserves the freedom of the republic. The all-important point, the determining factor, is the presence of good laws in the state: these guarantee that the clash of different interests does not harm the republic for they find an institutional outcome to the conflict. For instance, Machiavelli deems very important that the people be able to sue magistrates for misconduct in the proper courts; when these public outlets for people’s anger are wanting, they recur to slander in the private: “Men are accused to magistrates, to peoples, to councils; they are calumniated in piazzas and in loggias”; this situation creates hatred, division, and eventually the ruin of the state (Discourses I, 8). In the Roman Republic, which is Machiavelli’s model, the presence of the two factions of the People and the Great and the consequent “tumults” were exploited by the lawgiver to mold a mixed constitution and therefore a “perfect republic” (Discourses I, 2). The good laws act on a double level: they educate the citizens to never lose sight of the common good even during factional strife; they “institutionalize” the conflict, not allowing it to escalate to the point when disgruntled citizens recur to “the extraordinary,” namely extra-legal and therefore subversive measures (Discourses I, 7). Rome, contrary to Florence, had such good laws and institutions and therefore was not a “divided” or “inordinate” republic (Discourses I, 4). In addition, thanks to Numa Rome had a well-established religion, which brought about good institutions and virtuous citizens. Numa is praised for realizing the importance of religions as a means to create good citizens: “As he found a very ferocious people and wished to reduce it to civil obedience with the arts of peace, he turned to religion as a thing altogether necessary if he wished to maintain a civilization.” This is the beneficent effect of religion: “citizens feared to break an oath much more than the laws, like those who esteemed the power of God more than that of men” (Discourses I, 11). Lack of religion, on the contrary, brings about all sort of ills as it is testified by the dire situation of Italy, full of irreligious, evil people and, in addition, politically divided because of the bad teachings and examples of the Church of Rome. Machiavelli has a word for the situation of division, factional strife, lack of love for the common good, moral and political decline: corruption. Where there is no love for the common good, customs decline and selfish interests prevail to the point that the entire state is destroyed. Machiavelli was not exaggerating or overstating his point. Faithful to his belief that the prudent man should learn “from long experience with modern things and a continuous reading of ancient ones” (Prince, Dedicatory Letter), Machiavelli draws from the works of the classics (especially Thucydides, Plato, Livy, and Tacitus) and couples their teaching with his own experience in practical politics. Plato in the Politicus had observed that it was an amazing feat that a polis could survive bad politicians and Thucydides had shown the sad fate of cities that had been destroyed and their inhabitants sold into slavery; the Roman historians had described Rome’s decay under corrupt politicians and bad emperors; Machiavelli himself had seen the rise and destruction of so many political entities in his lifetime.16 And his native city Florence had been rife with personal rivalries and factional struggles most of its existence, as it is testified by 59

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the Florentine Histories. Machiavelli speaks both of “a corrupt people” and of “corrupt matter.” Both expressions emphasize the division and lack of common good present in a city, describing it from different perspectives: the low moral and political condition of the citizens or the illfunctioning of the institutions. Corruption is a condition of disorder and lawlessness, of inequality before the laws so that the aristocrats feel entitled to use the laws to their sole advantage and to increase their power; corruption breeds civil strife, which, in turn, almost inevitably paves the way to a sole ruler. This is a condition of the utmost danger for a state because two outcomes are possible: either a “good and prudent man” intervenes and saves the republic by enforcing the laws or using extraordinary means, or a tyrant takes the power and rules for his own benefit. Contrary to the popular view, which sees him as the evil teacher of tyrants on how to keep their power, Machiavelli traced a hard and fast distinction between the prince and the tyrant: the prince aims at saving the state and therefore at the common good for his fellow citizens; the tyrant has only his personal interest in view. The tyrant is the likely outcome of a civil strife that induces the aristocrats and the people to pursue their selfish interest; the condition of civil strife is therefore extremely dangerous for a republic and institutional remedies should be devised by legislators to avoid it. Commenting on the case of the Decemvirs in Rome in Discourses I, 40, Machiavelli states: the inconvenience of creating this tyranny arose for those same causes that the greater part of tyrannies in cities arise; and this is from too great a desire of the people to be free and from too great a desire of the nobles to command. When they do not agree to make a law in favour of freedom, but one of the parties jumps to favour one individual, then it is that tyranny emerges at once. The tyrant precipitates the search for personal advantage and, by appropriating the entire state, transforms what is common – the res publica – into something private. Tyranny, therefore, is the emblem and the embodiment of utter evil in politics. The tyrant himself may be a ferocious or a gentle man but tyranny is always evil because it is the denial of the common good: a “good tyrant” is a contradiction in terms because being “good” in politics means to act for the “common utility” of the citizens. In fact, when Machiavelli in Discourses II, 2, speaks of the possibility that in a city a “virtuous tyrant” appears by chance, he deliberately uses this oxymoronic expression to show that the community would not benefit at all from him: his conquests, which make him “virtuous,” are only to his own advantage. In this distinction between common good vs. private interest lies the difference between the prince and the tyrant, good and evil in politics.17 Since tyranny is a lurking danger in all political arrangements, lawgivers and prudent statesmen should devise institutional means to defuse this threat. The best remedy to such occurrence is to provide for an institutional solution in advance, as did the Roman Republic with the office of dictatorship. Failing this, a republic in a state of disorder must rely on a combination of virtue and fortune: the fortune to find a prudent statesman who takes charge of the situation and reforms the state. These are Machiavelli’s reflections in the Florentine Histories, a work that revolves around the topic of civil war and factional strife: Cities, more especially those imperfectly organized, which are governed under the name of republics, frequently change their rulers and the form of their institutions; not by the influence of liberty or subjection, as many suppose, but by that of slavery and license; for with the nobility or the people, the ministers respectively of slavery or licentiousness, only the name of liberty is in any estimation, neither of them choosing to be subject either to magistrates or laws. When, however, a good, wise, and 60


powerful citizen appears (which is but seldom), who establishes ordinances capable of appeasing or restraining these contending dispositions, so as to prevent them from doing mischief, then the government may be called free, and its institutions firm and secure; for having good laws for its basis, and good regulations for carrying them into effect, it needs not, like others, the virtue of one man for its maintenance. With such excellent laws and institutions, many of those ancient republics, which were of long duration, were endowed. But these advantages are, and always have been, denied to those which frequently change from tyranny to license, or the reverse; because, from the powerful enemies which each condition creates itself, they neither have, nor can possess any stability.18

Machiavelli’s man Two famous quotes may introduce us to the question of Machiavelli’s anthropology. In the Prince, he famously states that “of men, we may say generally this: that they are ungrateful, fickle, pretenders and dissemblers, evaders of danger, eager for gain.”19 The emphasis should be put on “generally”: this is a general rule for the prince, who must assume for political purposes that all his subjects will turn out to be such if they are not tamed by the laws and by princely power. But this is not a universal observation: it is valid “generally” and does not preclude the possibility of finding “good men” who care for their country. In the Discourses we read: As all those demonstrate who reason on a civil way of life, and as every history is full of examples, it is necessary to whoever disposes a republic and orders laws in it to presuppose that all men are bad. (Discourses I, 3)20 We should beware of construing these statements as supporting the trite notion that Machiavelli had a negative anthropology, a pessimistic view of human nature: this is in fact a political anthropology; it is not metaphysical. Machiavelli advises the statesman to assume, for political reasons, that all his subjects are wicked; but in reality, in ordinary life, human beings are varied, some are good and some are bad, as it is testified by Machiavelli himself in his letters. In politics, however, an als ob anthropology is required. 21 Further light on Machiavelli’s anthropology is scattered by Prince 23, where we read: “men will always turn out bad for you unless they have been made good by a necessity.” This statement is in fact the conclusion of a paragraph where Machiavelli exposes a “general rule that never fails: that a prince who is not wise by himself cannot be counselled well” (emphasis mine). Machiavelli’s opinion is that good counseling “must arise from the prudence of the prince” (emphasis mine). The two fundamental elements to be noted here are the notions of prudence and wisdom: Machiavelli believes that these two qualities enable the prince to save the state and his educational project is exactly to enable his readers to become wise and prudent statesmen. Machiavelli therefore believes that there are such “good men” who can become virtuous politicians if they receive the proper education. Otherwise, there would be no point in educating to the common good evil men. Once we have ascertained this, we should explore Machiavelli’s phenomenology of good and evil men. Before we do that, however, we must underline another important element in the previous sentence. Men are made good by necessity; this statement is repeated in Discourses I, 3, where Machiavelli says that “men never work any good unless through necessity,” and in what follows he makes clear that “license,” i.e., lack of law and order, brings about “confusion and 61

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disorder,” whereas the laws make men good. We should therefore interpret this “necessity” that makes men good as the constraint of the laws; it is neither an external, casual circumstance nor internal deontology that induce human beings to behave properly but rather the institutional force of the laws. This is clearly confirmed by Machiavelli’s repeated statement in Discourses I, 1 that the “necessity ordered by the laws” created excellent citizens even in countries geographically unsuited to virtue. We may now address the fundamental question: who are the good men and the bad men according to Machiavelli? His answer is exquisitely political. The good men are those who care for the common good and act accordingly, engaging in politics and working to preserve and aggrandize the state. On the contrary, the bad men are those who pursue selfish interests and thus divide and imperil the state or who, because of their sluggishness or ineptitude, destroy the political community. Moral depravity and “sinful” behavior have nothing to do with this judgment. For instance, Machiavelli condemns Oliverotto from Fermo not because of his moral flaws (he killed his maternal uncle, who raised him, to usurp his power) but because he turned his free city into a personal rule and was not even able to preserve his power (Prince 8); similarly, Giovanpagolo Baglioni is called “tyrant of Perugia” and berated for not being “honorably wicked”: an incestuous murderer of relatives, he did not catch the occasion to kill Pope Julius II and many cardinals when he had the opportunity for it, thus failing to leave “an eternal memory of himself as being the first who had demonstrated to the prelates how little is to be esteemed whoever lives and reigns as they do” (Discourses I, 27). Machiavelli’s condemnation is at the political, not the moral level. It is at this level that Machiavelli’s infamous distinction between well-used and badly used cruelties enters the scene (Prince 8). Machiavelli does not depart from conventional morality in defining “cruel” certain acts but his final judgment is exclusively political. In fact, Machiavelli prefaces this distinction by stating “if it is licit to speak well of evil” and then proceeds on a political level: well-used cruelties are those which are committed “for the necessity to secure” the state and for the well-being of the citizens, namely evil acts that serve the common good. Badly used cruelties are those that stem from the wickedness of the prince and have no public utility. In the case of Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse and “hero” of Prince 8, his use of cruel methods to quench civil strife and to fight foreign invaders (the Carthaginians) entitle him to be called a “virtuous” prince. Similarly, Ferdinand of Aragon, king of Spain, is lauded for using “pious cruelty” in order to accomplish “great things,” namely unifying and fortifying his kingdom (Prince 21). Machiavelli believes that a political act should be judged not only by the intentions of the agent but also in a consequentialist perspective: one should look at the purpose of the statesman as well as at the consequences of his actions. Romulus is an instructive example, for he killed his brother Remus in the very act of founding Rome and creating a “civil way of life”; Romulus did not act “out of his own ambition” but in order to defend the “common good.” In fact, he did not establish a short-lived personal rule but rather kept for himself only the typical authority of a good king and went on to create the Senate. Machiavelli can therefore conclude that, although “the deed accuses him, the effect excuses him” (Discourses I, 9). Likewise, Machiavelli’s famous statement that “Cesare Borgia was considered a cruel person; however, his cruelty had mended Romagna, put it together, reduced it to a peaceful and faithful condition” sheds light on what are for him the goods a real statesman should pursue: unity of the state through law and order, peace and faith, namely recognition of the ruler’s authority.22 Cesare Borgia is again an instructive example: after commanding his lieutenant Remirro dell’Orco to ruthlessly crush the riotous Romagna lords, he had him found quartered on the central square of Cesena in order to deflect popular anger from himself: to inhumanly kill your acolyte who paved the way to 62


your rule cannot but be considered a disloyal and cruel act; however, this act made Borgia look strong and fair and enabled him to pacify and unify that riotous region: it served the common good and was therefore politically justified. The political circumstances are the determining factor when it comes to evaluate the political soundness (and therefore “goodness”) of an action. In Prince 19 Machiavelli gives us one of his unconventional observations: “And here one should note that hatred is acquired through good deeds as well as bad ones; and so, as I said above, a prince who wants to maintain his state is often forced not to be good.” For where there is a “corrupt matter” even good deeds are not useful; the prudent statesman should therefore imitate the “virtuous” emperor Septimius Severus, who pacified and enlarged the Roman Empire by acting as “a very fierce lion and a very astute fox.” We may note again the presence of this element of necessity here: it is necessity that, in certain political circumstances, forces the statesman to do evil deeds. Also the notion of fortuna and her role reappear here: if a politician is so lucky as never to find himself in circumstances which threaten the existence of his state, he will not need to commit evil deeds. Fortuna is responsible for presenting the circumstances; the statesman must be ready and capable to adapt to them. In the case of a new prince, the element of necessity is higher. Reviewing the actions of Severus, Machiavelli emphasizes his ferociousness and cruelty, which were however accompanied by great “virtue,” namely the capacity of unifying the state: the result was that both people and soldiers admired him and remained the one “astonished and stupefied,” the other “reverent and satisfied” and he could reign untroubled.23 Completely different is the case of Commodus, who could have had an easy time keeping the orderly empire inherited from the father Marcus Aurelius. But Commodus “had a cruel and bestial spirit” and thus indulged the armies, making them “licentious,” and committed vile and undignified acts: as a result, he brought unto himself the hatred of the people and the contempt of the soldiers and was murdered in a conspiracy. The deciding factor in Machiavelli’s judgment is the use of cruelty, whose moral status remains unchallenged: cruelty is morally evil but sometimes politically required. Machiavelli accordingly concludes this chapter by stating that in order to found a state a new prince must imitate Severus’ necessary actions; on the contrary, in order to keep an already established and firm state, one should imitate Marcus Aurelius’ fitting and glorious behavior. Evil deeds required by the circumstances and which serve the common good are politically excused although they remain evil; and acting well for the public utility brings glory.

How to remain a good man while doing evil deeds It is to be noted that Machiavelli is quite consistent in his definition of “good” and “evil” and also distinguishes between “good” and “virtuous” or “prudent” men: the former are those men, princes as well as common people, who are motivated by love for the country and pursue the common good in their political action; the latter are the effective politicians, capable to preserve and aggrandize the state although not always motivated by disinterested love for the country; this is the case of the Sicilian tyrant Agathocles, whose “virtue” in ruling Syracuse is extolled more than once regardless of his “savage cruelty and inhumanity” (Prince 8). Virtue has a quintessentially political meaning. Obviously, Machiavelli envisages the possibility that some people live a private life and are good and pious human beings according to traditional morality. But, when it comes to the public sphere, “goodness” is determined solely by love for the country and pursuit of the common good. Machiavelli’s very elevated image of politics emerges from the examples he presents to his readers for imitation: outstanding figures who did “great things” and are therefore to be imitated by all those who want to follow in their footsteps: founders 63

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of states like Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, Romulus; and then statesmen who saved or aggrandized their states such as Agesilaus, Brutus, and Cato. These were all outstanding men endowed with an extraordinary political vision and totally unselfish in their motivations. They are the demonstration that there exist such “good men,” that human beings are not all wicked. When we explore these examples further, we notice that all these rulers were forced to commit evil deeds in order to accomplish their task; this observation shows that effective political action can rarely be achieved without compromising one’s moral integrity. This lesson is alluded to already in the incipit of the Prince. In his dedication to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Machiavelli writes that the only two qualities of his work that might render it appealing to Lorenzo are “the variety of the matter and the gravity of the subject” (emphasis mine). I think these words were carefully chosen and should be taken literally: the gravity of certain political situations requires a prince to adopt means that have grave moral consequences for his soul. What Machiavelli is pointing to here is that there is a tension between means and ends in politics because the statesman will very likely need to do things that are right (from the perspective of political virtue) but wrong from the perspective of a Christian morality. This means that the person who takes political responsibility must put his personal happiness, in this and the next life, in second place after public well-being. There is a clear clash between public and personal happiness.24 One’s soul is a private matter, while the protection and nurturing of a safe and stable state is a public matter and precedence must be given to the public. Machiavelli’s statesman thus stands out as a heroic figure, capable not only of sacrificing his body for the homeland but also of surrendering his soul. Politics is thus the realm of tragic dilemmas because the statesman is often forced to abdicate moral duties in order to follow the political imperative of saving the state. It is also a reign of necessity for there are requirements that a statesman cannot avoid: even avoiding to decide is a choice that may have fatal consequences. This doctrine is summed up in Prince 18, where Machiavelli explains that in order to accomplish “great things” a prince must be able to use both “the beast and the man,” violence and the laws. He explains that, “since a prince is compelled of necessity to know well how to use the beast, he should pick the fox and the lion,” namely the symbols of ruse and force. The entire chapter is punctuated by the emphasis on necessity in the prince’s actions. Machiavelli’s famous conclusion is still staggering after 500 years: This has to be understood: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things for which men are held good, since he is often under a necessity, to maintain his state, of acting against faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion. Being a good man (according to ordinary morality) and being a good prince are often conflicting ends. The prince must therefore “not depart from good, when possible, but know how to enter into evil, when forced by necessity” (Prince 18). It is to be noted that evil remains evil for Machiavelli: traditional moral categories are not overturned, but this dramatic dimension of complexity only adds to the political scene. The statesman must know that politics is a serious matter because the happiness or unhappiness, and sometimes even the life or death of his fellow citizens depend on his decisions; therefore, he must be ready to dirty his hands when extreme situations require it. If we interpret political “goodness” Machiavelli’s way, we realize that it is possible to remain a “good man” even while using evil means if the end is the salvation of the state. Here lies the novelty of Machiavelli’s teaching. Paradoxically, this political education may be construed as an education in “how not to be good,” in the capacity to dirty one’s hands but always for the ultimate goal, 64


the only end that makes all means honorable: saving the state.25 This is the sense of the famous statement we read in the Prince: Hence it is necessary to a prince, if he wants to maintain himself, to learn to be able not to be good, and use this and not use it according to necessity.26 It is important to insist on this element of political necessity that forces the statesman to be “not good” in certain circumstances in order to correctly appreciate the dramatic aspect of Machiavelli’s message to his reader and prospective statesman: evil actions are sometimes required in politics and thus those who are not willing to dirty their hands for their country should opt for a different life choice. This aspect was well caught by that refined reader of Machiavelli, Max Weber. In his Politics as a Vocation he remarked: The man who is concerned for the welfare of his soul and the salvation of the souls of others does not seek these aims along the path of politics. Politics has quite different goals, which can only be achieved by force.27 The prince is the sole interpreter of the contingent necessity, which requires him to “enter evil.” He has the responsibility to decide whether he should accomplish an action that is morally wrong but required by the circumstances. The prince must therefore have an education which enables him to correctly understand the contingent situation and the appropriate action required; in addition, he should have a clear hierarchy of priorities, where the subsistence of the state is at the top. Machiavelli’s fundamental problem is the education of a new kind of statesman so that he both has his priority right and is capable to address the ever-changing circumstances: the Prince and the Discourses should therefore be read as educational works. The central chapters of the Prince, devoted to the examination of the qualities of the new prince, serve the purpose to instruct the prospective prince to judge what is good beyond the appearances. They pivot around the notion that what classical political thought and Christian morality told us to be good or to be the correct action actually brings about a disastrous political result: the loss of the state. What Machiavelli imparts there is a moral and political lesson on distinguishing the good from the apparent good in politics; dispelling moral confusion is conducive to the right political action.28 The complex relation between good and evil in politics emerges clearly in Discourses I, 18. Here Machiavelli examines the question “whether in a corrupt city one can maintain a free state,” namely whether it is possible to maintain a republican government in a city where there is factional strife unrestrained by laws and institutions. Machiavelli begins by saying that it is nearly impossible to give a definite rule on this matter because one should examine the cases according to the degrees of corruption; he reiterates here what he had maintained in Prince 20 while investigating the pros and cons of fortresses: it is impossible to give a definite judgment because one should examine the specific situations. Machiavelli conceives of politics as an art, where the statesman applies general rules learned from experience or instructive readings to the ever-changing historical conditions. So, what he intends to do in this chapter is to give a general rule which will contribute to the education of the statesman, to form his virtuous habit, if we wish to use an Aristotelian phrasing. The abundant use of examples of previous statesmen and of their success or failure serves the purpose to make the reader politically wise: Machiavelli leaves it up to him to correctly apply this teaching according to the specific circumstances. The example of Rome, which made new laws to rein in the fast-growing corruption of the citizens but did not change the political arrangement of the state, is very instructive: the result was a complete failure. In order to keep her freedom Rome should have changed her political 65

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arrangement because a “corrupt matter” requires laws and institutions that are different to those of a well-ordered and healthy city: for there cannot be “a similar form in a matter altogether contrary” (note the Aristotelian overtones). This change of arrangement and institutions may be operated in two different ways: either little by little or all at a stroke. Both enterprises, however, turn out to be “almost impossible.” To renovate the institutions little by little, it is necessary to find a “prudent man” who sees the problem arising “from afar,” in its very beginning, but such men are very rare and, in any case, find it very difficult to persuade their fellow citizens, who are used to living in a corrupt situation. But also renovating the institutions all of a sudden, when everyone is aware of their corruption, is highly problematic because it cannot be done in the ordinary way, namely through the laws, because the ineffectiveness of the laws is precisely the source of the problem. Machiavelli maintains that in such cases one must “have recourse to the extraordinary, that is to say to violence and arms”: it is necessary to assume sole power in the city to be able to act unrestrainedly. It is here that the complexity of the problem is fully revealed and the highest challenge for the statesman lies: Because the reordering of a city for a political way of life presupposes a good man, and becoming prince of a republic by violence presupposes a bad man. Machiavelli is well aware of the scale of the problem of trying to create a republic in a situation of corruption where there is “inequality” among citizens, namely when there are aristocrats who consider themselves above the law, and a disorderly people. Seen in an abstract light, such an enterprise looks almost impossible and even contradictory, since one cannot be a good and a bad man at the same time. But in Machiavelli’s perspective a “good man” in politics can do evil things while remaining a good man for goodness is gauged by love for the common good. The conundrum exists only for those who apply moral categories also to politics. It is extremely rare that a “good man” will want to become a prince using “evil ways,” albeit with a good end in mind, and conversely that an evil man who has become prince will want to use well the power he acquired against the laws. But this is exactly the sense of Machiavelli’s teaching, its core. It is difficult to maintain a republic in corrupt cities without veering toward “a kingly state,” where the strong hand of the prince (the “kingly hand”) may succeed in reining in the license of the people and the insolence of the aristocrats, who have private militia, “rule over castles” and feel they are above the laws.29 Machiavelli’s intent – and ambition – is to educate a kind of statesman who knows how to be good and not-good according to circumstances. His historical examples of those who succeeded in combining the use of evil means with the pursuit of a good end are very telling: the Spartan king Cleomenes, who killed all the Ephors, and Romulus, who killed his brother and Titus Tatius the Sabine. They both acted to preserve their cities free and great, for the common good and not for personal gain, and should therefore be exonerated. Cleomenes and Romulus had already been quoted in an earlier chapter (I, 9), where Machiavelli stated a “general rule,” to the extent that it is necessary to have sole power in order to create a republic or a kingdom. Romulus belongs to the category of “prudent orderer of a republic” who wish to be useful to the “common good” and the “common fatherland.”30 These statesmen ought never to be blamed by any wise man for using extraordinary means in order to reach their ends.

Conclusion: the redeeming element in politics If we take Machiavelli’s central lesson to be the disclosure of the dramatic nature of politics, the inherent evil in it which will result in the tainted hands of the politician, this lesson has a universal application. Political regimes may have changed but human beings have not. Contemporary 66


liberal democracies have efficient checks and balances and a wider distribution of power; they place more constraints on their statesmen, who are accountable in front of public opinion as well as before courts. Does this change things and undermine the validity of Machiavelli’s view of “necessary evil”? I do not think so. In an imperfect world, even democratic politicians will sometimes have to face tragic dilemmas and confront the problem of dirty hands.31 Was it just and morally justifiable to drop the atom bomb on the civilian population of Japanese cities in order to reduce American casualties? Harry S. Truman, the president who authorized dropping the bomb, had a sign on his desk saying “The buck stops here!”, bowing to the evidence that in all political arrangements there must be a supreme authority who makes the final decision and takes responsibility for it. Sometimes in politics tragic decisions have to be made and they inevitably entail guilt and pollution: does the “seriousness of politics” make evil sometimes necessary and therefore exonerate the author?32 Whether a politician will ever find himself in such a situation is a matter of luck, as Machiavelli taught his readers. Saint-Just famously stated that “no-one can reign innocently.” Does this mean that the endplace of all Machiavellian politicians will be Hell? Machiavelli has an interesting answer to this question. Speaking of the “well-used cruelties” that serve the common good, he noted that those who use them will find some remedy to mend their state “with the help of God and of men” (Prince 8). Politics thus seems to have a redeeming element for those who act for the common good. It appears that God looks benevolently upon those who love their country.

Notes 1 I am here thinking of such authors as Strauss 1958 and Berlin 1979, just to mention two refined contemporary interpreters. In Strauss’s complex reading, Machiavelli was a true philosopher and as such inevitably sapping the moral foundations of society. Berlin argues that Machiavelli rejected Christian ethics in favor of an alternative moral universe. But the tradition is long. See also Hampshire 1989 for his sophisticated interpretation to the extent that Machiavelli showed the importance of the virtue of experience and envisaged a new morality for politicians, in stark contrast with the Christian virtues and what Weber would call an ethic of ultimate ends. See Weber 1978: 212–25. 2 It was Nicola Matteucci who spoke of the “seriousness of politics” in his interpretation of Machiavelli. See Matteucci 1984: 31–67. For Machiavelli’s works I have used the Italian text in Opere, ed. C.Vivanti (Turin: Einaudi, 1997), 3 vols. For the English translation I have used The Prince, translated and with introduction by H. Mansfield (Chicago, IL, and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Discourses on Livy, translated by H. Mansfield and N.Tarcov (Chicago, IL, and London:The University of Chicago Press, 1998); Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others, ed. by A. Gilbert (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1989), 3 vols. 3 In the Florentine Histories Machiavelli praised the city’s magistrates who fought against Pope Gregory XI and commented: “so much more did those citizens then esteem their homeland than their souls”: Florentine Histories III, 7. 4 For a different opinion see Orwin 1978: 1217–28. Orwin denies the existence of a tragic element in Machiavelli. 5 As early as 1539 Cardinal Reginald Pole famously described Machiavelli as a “son of Satan” and an “enemy of the human race,” the author of a poisonous book. On the context of Pole’s invective and on the early reception of Machiavelli see Anglo 2005. 6 Discourses I, 6; II, Preface; Florentine Histories V, 1. 7 See e.g., Discourses I, 12; II, 2. 8 On this extremely important and puzzling chapter of the Discourses see Giorgini 2014: 3–38. 9 See Plato, Timaeus 22a–23c; Laws III, 676b–678a. Cicero, De Republica VI, 21, 23; Tusculan Disputations I, 28. 10 See for instance the myth of the reversed cosmos in Plato’s Politicus 269c–274e. 11 The expression “great things” recurs several times in the central chapters (16–18) of the Prince, where Machiavelli examines the appropriate ways of a new prince. It identifies the target that the new prince should set in front of himself: saving the state or creating a new one, aggrandizing it and “embellishing” it with good laws and institutions. No other feat brings glory to a statesman more than this.


Giovanni Giorgini 12 At the beginning of Chapter 25 fortuna is named together with God’s will as influences on human agency, so fortuna appears to have the meaning of luck. Interestingly enough, the reference to God is dropped in the rest of the chapter. 13 The idea that men’s actions must match the quality of the times is repeated, with some additional thoughts, in Discourses III, 9. 14 This lesson emerges quite clearly in Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue, where the Athenian envoys twice remind the Melian councilors that they are not engaged in a contest for excellence in discourses: what is at stake is the very survival of their city (soteria tes poleos): Thucydides V, 85–113, see especially 87 and 111. The same Thucydides identified for the first time the notion of status necessitatis: when accused by the Boeotians of acting impiously and against the traditional customs because they occupied a sanctuary and drank from a holy spring inside it, some Athenian soldiers replied that they were forced to do so by necessity: and even the gods are lenient toward those beset by necessity: “Actions to which people were constrained by war or some other emergency would be pardonable in the god’s eyes too”: IV, 97–8. On the salus reipublicae, or salus populi, see Cicero, De legibus III, 3, 8. In Florentine Histories V, 11 Machiavelli has one citizen of Lucca state that “You should have been aware for a long time that one ought not or cannot receive praise or blame for things done out of necessity.” 15 This is the “common utility” that a citizen derives from “a free way of life”: “being able to enjoy one’s things freely, without any suspicion, not fearing for the honour of wives and that of children, not to be afraid for oneself ” (Discourses I, 16). 16 See Machiavelli’s description in Discourses I, 10. 17 I wish to refer here to Giorgini 2008: 230–56. 18 Florentine Histories IV, 1. 19 Prince 17, emphasis mine. 20 Cf. Discourses I, 9, where it is said that “men are more prone to evil than to good.” 21 I therefore agree with Erica Benner’s judgment: “I suggest that Machiavelli’s statements about human badness are best understood as cautionary and regulative judgments”: Benner 2009: 193. 22 See Prince 7, where it is said that the duke Valentino reduced Romagna into a “peaceful and unified condition,” “to peace and obedience to a kingly arm.” Passerin d’Entrèves 1967 already perceived that unity, peace and obedience inside the state were the goods that legitimized the ruthless action of the new prince. 23 Compare the use of similar adjectives in the episode of Remirro dell’Orco in Prince 7. 24 This problem was already identified by Plato in Republic VII: the philosophers must give up their life of contemplation, in which their happiness resides, and must redescend into the cave to take care of their fellow citizens. Machiavelli, who lives in a Christian culture, goes further: statesmen should be prepared to give up their happiness not only in this life but also in the afterlife. 25 See Prince 18, where we read:“So let a prince win and maintain his State: the means will always be judged honorable and will be praised by everyone.” Cf. Discourses III, 41: “That advice deserves to be noted and observed by any citizen who finds himself counseling his fatherland, for where one deliberates entirely on the safety of his fatherland, there ought not to enter any consideration of either just or unjust, merciful or cruel, praiseworthy or ignominious; indeed, every other concern put aside, one ought to follow entirely the policy that saves its life and maintains its liberty.” It is evident from this latter passage that moral categories remain unaltered in politics; only, their relevance is submitted to political considerations. 26 Prince 15. Note that in this and in the subsequent chapter Machiavelli speaks of the “vices without which it is difficult to save one’s State” (15) and the “vices which enable him [the prince] to rule” (16): vice remains vice and the prince is not morally absolved. 27 Weber 1978: 223. 28 See Hampshire 1989: 163–5. 29 Discourses I, 55. 30 Discourses I, 19 on Romulus’ prudence. In his judgment of Romulus Machiavelli seems to be deliberately contrasting Cicero’s negative appraisal of him in De Officiis III, 41. 31 On this inevitable problem in politics see the insightful de Wijze 2012: 189–200. In addition, Giorgini 2017: 58–86. 32 “For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder, and murder is one of the worst of human actions”: these grave words belong to one of the acutest moral philosophers of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Anscombe. She wrote them in a pamphlet aimed at contrasting the proposed honorary degree to be conferred to President Truman by Oxford University; Anscombe deemed the reasons for dropping the bomb not cogent enough. See Anscombe 1958: 2.



References Anglo, S. 2005. Machiavelli: The First Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Anscombe, G.E.M. 1958. Mr. Truman’s Degree. Oxford: published by the author. Berlin, I. 1979. “The Originality of Machiavelli.” Against the Current. Oxford: Clarendon. Benner, E. 2009. Machiavelli’s Ethics. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press. de Wijze, S. 2012. “The Challenge of a Moral Politics: Mendus and Coady on Politics, Integrity and ‘Dirty Hands’.” Res Publica 18: 189–200. Gilbert, A. (ed.) 1989. Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 3 vols. Giorgini, G. 2017. “Machiavelli on Good and Evil” in Machiavelli on Liberty and Conf lict, eds. D. Johnston-N., Urbinati-C. Vergara. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press: 58–86. Giorgini, G. 2008. “The Place of the Tyrant in Machiavelli’s Political Thought and the Literary Genre of the Prince.” History of Political Thought 29: 230–56. Giorgini, G. 2014. “L’educazione filosofica dell’uomo politico: Discorsi II, 5.” Il Pensiero Politico 47: 3–38. Machiavelli, N. 1998. The Prince, translated and with introduction by H. Mansfield. Chicago, IL, and London: University of Chicago Press. Machiavelli, N. 1998. Discourses on Livy, translated by H. Mansfield and N. Tarcov. Chicago, IL, and London: University of Chicago Press. Machiavelli, N. 1997. Opere ed. C. Vivanti. Turin: Einaudi. 3 vols. Hampshire, S. 1989. Innocence and Experience. London: Penguin. Matteucci, N. 1984. “Niccolò Machiavelli” in Alla ricerca dell’ordine politico. Bologna: Il Mulino. Orwin, C. 1978. “Machiavelli’s Unchristian Charity.” American Political Science Review 72: 1217–28. Passerin d’Entrèves, A. 1967. The Notion of the State. London: Oxford University Press. Strauss, L. 1958. Thoughts on Machiavelli. Glencoe: Free Press. Weber, M. 1978. “Politics as a Vocation” in Selections in Translation, ed. W.G. Runciman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


5 HOBBES ON EVIL Laurens van Apeldoorn

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) is best-known as one of the preeminent theorists of the modern state. In his political writings he defends obedience to undivided and absolute sovereignty as the only solution to human conflict and war, arguing that only if the civil sovereign has overwhelming power to bend the will of each citizen can a catastrophe be avoided. As radical as they are contentious, few of his readers have been willing to accept his views without reservation. Yet, they are difficult to ignore. He inventively incorporates commonly held views and aspects of the views of his opponents, and he makes a concerted effort, over several decades, to place his politics in a systematic philosophy that includes metaphysics, natural philosophy, and what we would today call psychology. The result is a tightly argued wide-ranging philosophical system. This is also the reason why a handbook on evil should include a chapter on Hobbes. At several moments, he contributes to the conceptual history of evil by showing how evil must be understood to fit with his unconventional political and philosophical commitments. In this chapter I provide an overview organized primarily around two of those moments. First, Hobbes tries to undermine the traditional natural law position that identifies God’s command as an independent standard to which the civil sovereign can be held to account. Hobbes maintains that individuals owe virtually unlimited obedience to their earthly sovereign in both temporal and spiritual matters, regardless of the content of the civil law. This means that citizens commit a sin or culpable evil then and only then when they violate the command of the civil sovereign. However, Hobbes builds this positivist edifice on a natural law foundation. Crucially, he remains committed to the principle that “Subjects owe to Sovereigns simple Obedience in all things wherein their obedience is not repugnant to the Lawes of God” (L 31.1: 554; also EL 2.6.1: 144–5). The arguments squaring these two positions provide a framework explaining what must be condemned as evil in civil and religious life. Second, Hobbes develops a necessitarian and materialist metaphysics that rules out the existence of free will and commits him to maintaining that God is the cause of all evil in the world. In a long-running debate with the Anglican theologian Bishop John Bramhall, Hobbes spends considerable energy on showing the compatibility of these positions with Christian piety and the justifiability of ordinary practices of praise, blame, and punishment. I turn to these arguments, which provide further insight in Hobbes’s thoughts on the nature of evil, in the last section of the paper. First, I start by outlining Hobbes’s conception of natural law as means to avoid death as the chief natural evil, and his conception of sin in temporal and spiritual matters. 70

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Evil in moral philosophy In this section I show that Hobbes conceives of morality, or natural law, as principles dictating the means to avoid the greatest natural evil – death. From the outset, Hobbes is strongly opposed to teleological accounts of human flourishing. In his works dealing with natural philosophy and metaphysics, and most extensively in De Corpore (1655), Hobbes defends a materialist and necessitarian ontology. He equates being with matter, thus ruling out the existence of immaterial substances, and denies that bodies have properties besides extension and motion (DCo 8.24: 118; see Duncan 2005). All motion is caused necessarily by the local motion of other bodies, in a long chain of causes going back to a first cause, “the eternal cause of all things, God Almighty” (DCo 9.5: 122–3; LN: 20). On the basis of this ontology he maintains that scientific explanations must not venture beyond considering material and efficient causality. In particular he denies that we can find final causes or purposes in nature, and teleological explanations are therefore never genuinely explanatory (DCo 30.2: 509–10: L 2.1: 26). This is also true for moral philosophy, the “Science of what is Good, and Evill” (L 15.40, p.242). Hobbes does not deny that humans have purposes. They evidently pursue things they find desirable and avoid things they consider harmful. However, he suggests, we can fully explain such behavior in terms of imperceptible motions of the inner organs of the human body (DCo 10.7: 131–2). In The Elements of Law (1640) he develops a materialistic psychology along these lines, which he also adopts with few changes in Leviathan (1651, Latin ed. 1668), generally considered the most mature exposition of his moral and political philosophy. When a person perceives something as good and desirable, he argues in these works, this is ultimately nothing but some corporeal motion in the heart, an “appetite,” that may cause the person to pursue it if no other motion prevents it. Similarly, he suggests that practical deliberation consists in the succession of such appetites and aversions, and that an act of the will is the last of the appetites that causes the person to act (L 6.5, p.80; L 6.49, p.90). This psychology reduces all intentionality and purpose exhibited in the thoughts and actions of individuals to mechanical motions in their bodies. This, Hobbes concludes, rules out the existence of a “Finis ultimus, (utmost ayme,)” or “Summum Bonum, (greatest Good,)” for humans (L 11.1: 150). Humans have no purpose by virtue of their nature, except to pursue the things they happen to desire (L 6.58: 96). Hobbes’s treatment of human flourishing, prompted by his mechanistic ontology, is exemplary of his commitment to the agent-relativity of value. Nothing is good or evil in itself; things are always only good or evil for someone. As Hobbes observes, these words of Good, Evill . . . are ever used with relation to the person that useth them: There being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common Rule of Good and Evill, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves. (L 6.7: 80–82; also EL: 1.7.3: 29; DH 11.4: 47; DCv 14.17: 162) While the agent-relativity of value is a fundamental feature of Hobbes’s treatment of evil, he nevertheless aims to establish a number of certain and universal principles of morality. He does so by holding that death is, generally, the greatest evil that can befall humans. Even in the absence of any summum bonum this provides him with a foundation to establish moral principles, which he accordingly conceives as dictating the means to self-preservation (Strauss 1952: 16). He maintains in De Cive (1642, 2nd ed. 1647), the most influential Latin statement of his political philosophy, that each person desires “that which is Good for him [sibi bonum]” and avoids “what is bad for him [sibi malum], and most of all the greatest of natural evils 71

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[malorum naturalium], which is death” (DCv 1.7: 27; also DCv Epistle Dedicatory §10: 6; EL 1.14.6: 71). On this basis he attributes to each individual, in the absence of political institutions, the natural right to do anything necessary to preserve themselves. Conversely, reason dictates the necessary means to self-preservation. Morality, or the laws of nature, consists in those dictates of reason (DCv 1.8: 27; DCv 2.1: 33). Commentators have observed that Hobbes is in Leviathan less clearly committed to a self-interested psychology (e.g., McNeilly 1966). Where he had previously claimed that individuals necessarily pursue their own good, in Leviathan he claims more moderately that the object of their desire “is principally their owne conservation” (L 13.3: 190). Commentators also note that he admits that individuals do not always, in fact, shun death as the greatest evil: they may pursue honor and revenge in a way that lead them to willingly risk their lives, or they may suffer pains that lead them to “number death among the goods” (DH 6.6: 48). Nevertheless, he remains in Leviathan of the opinion that natural law is a set of dictates of reason “by which a man is forbidden to do, that, which is destructive of his life” (L 14.3: 198). Since he takes natural law to be “Immutable and Eternall” (L 15: 240), he must have remained committed to the position that our own death is the chief evil, providing an agent-relative and self-interested foundation of morality (Murphy 2000: 45). There are two complications to this account of Hobbes’s moral philosophy as means to avoid a premature death as greatest evil. First, Hobbes holds that eternal damnation is a worse fate than death in this life (Murphy 2000: 50; Olsthoorn 2014). The danger of ignoring one’s duties toward God, he recognizes, may lead to evils in the afterlife that form a “greater punishment than the death of Nature” (L38.1: 698; in DCv 1.7: 27 he speaks of death as the greatest of “natural evils”). He therefore must show that his account of the obligations of subjects in a Hobbesian commonwealth are consistent with their salvation. Second, Hobbes notes that the laws of nature, which are “but Conclusions” regarding our self-preservation, can be properly be called laws when we conceive them as “delivered in the word of God” (L 15: 242; also DCv 3.33: 56–7). Conceived as the word of God, the laws of nature must be obeyed in order to avoid damnation and secure entry into the kingdom of Heaven. So conceived, however, they only give a partial account of our obligations since they provide only our obligations in temporal matters. In spiritual matters (“things which have their foundation in the authority and office of CHRIST and could not be known if CHRIST had not taught them” [DCv 17.14: 216]), our obligations must be derived from revealed religion. For this reason, I first outline Hobbes’s conception of sin or moral evil in temporal matters, and afterwards I turn to his conception of sin in spiritual matters.

Sin and temporal obligations In this section I outline Hobbes’s changing conception of sin or moral evil in temporal matters. In his political works his primary aim is to defend the view that individuals have, with some specific exceptions deriving from an inalienable right to resist threats to their life, an unlimited obligation of obedience (Hobbes calls it “simple obedience”) to their civil sovereign. He also aims to deny that natural law, outside the civil state, imposes meaningful restrictions on permissible action, so as to explain why life in that state is rife with conflict and should be avoided at all costs. Hobbes’s treatment of sin in temporal matters can be understood as an attempt to simultaneously satisfy both aims. In the first edition of De Cive (1642) he distinguishes between two conceptions of sin, one of a wide and one of narrow signification. In the wide signification, any action against reason is considered a “sin [peccatum]” in the “broadest sense” regardless of whether the act would be considered immoral or merely imprudent. There is no distinction between actions “contrary to 72

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the law, as to wreck someone else’s house” and actions “not contrary to law, as to build one’s own house upon sand” (DCv 14.16: 162). (Note that this includes irrational actions that do not frustrate the end of self-preservation.) All such foolishness is equally sinful. In the narrow signification, actions are sinful when they are against reason and additionally are blameworthy and form a “culpable evil [malum culpae].” Hobbes introduces the agent-relativity of our judgments of evil to defend the claim that we can only reach an agreement on what should be regarded as culpable by deferring to civil law. As he explains, individuals disagree about what contributes to their preservation and must be considered good or evil; they will tend to “regard as evil [malos], i.e. to find fault with [culpam attribuere], those who are a source of evil for themselves” (DCv 14.17: 162). Therefore we must leave it to the state to determine what actions are against reason and therefore culpable. The function of the civil law is to settle for everyone what should be considered “good and evil” (DCv Preface §8: 9–10; also DCv 6.9: 79; DCv 12.1: 131–2). Once the commonwealth is established we must no longer judge for ourselves what is good and evil but let the reason of the commonwealth stand for our own. Sin, in the strict signification, is “what anyone does, fails to do, says or wills contrary to the reason of the commonwealth, i.e against the laws” (DCv 14.17:162–6. The Elements does not contain a treatment of sin, but it does include a similar point about the impossibility of having a standard of reason in the state of nature [EL 2.10.8: 188–9; EL 2.6.13: 158]). On this account of sin, we commit a culpable evil when we pursue what reason – that is the state – identifies as evil, that is, as contrary to our self-preservation. It is impossible to sin in the strict signification by violating natural law in the state of nature. Violations of natural law must be classified as sinning in the “broadest sense” and as acts of mere imprudence. This is consistent with Hobbes’s account of natural right. In the state of nature, he maintains, everyone has a right “to all things,” (DCv 1.10: 28), which is to say that no action is prohibited. His argument for this radical position is the following. He attributes to individuals the right to do anything that reason indicates is necessary to preserve themselves. In the absence of political institutions they must decide for themselves what course of action best contributes to their preservation (DCv 1.9: 28). Since he has supposed that individuals always pursue what seems good for them (sibi bonum), he concludes that all actions necessary seem to the actor to contribute to their self-preservation (DCv 1.10: 28). That is why no action in the state of nature is prohibited. A development noted by Tuck (1979: 125), Hobbes revises his view of the nature of sins against natural law in the second edition of De Cive (1647). In the second edition – which includes several notes that develop and occasionally amend the argument in main text – Hobbes admits that it is possible to sin in the strict sense by violating natural law. However, he does so in a way that does not meaningfully restrict individual’s natural right in the state of nature. He still maintains that in absence of declared civil law the only standard of action is the “judgement of the person” acting (DCv 1.10n: 29; DCv 2.1n: 33). However, he now denies that individuals necessarily act in accordance with their best judgment of what contributes to their preservation. When they fail to do so they sin and commit a “wrong” against God (DCv 3.27n: 54; Hobbes had already proposed this position in EL 2.2.3: 120; EL 2.2.7: 121). It is impossible in the state of nature to commit a “wrong” against any “man,” Hobbes admits, but this does not imply that “it is impossible in such a state to sin [peccare] against God or to violate the Natural laws.” A person sins in this way, and commits a wrong against God, if “he claims that something contributes to his self-preservation, but does not believe that it does so” (DCv 1.10n: 28–9; also DCv 3.4n: 45; DCv 12.2: 132; DCv 3.28: 54; EL 2.6.12: 157). What matters, in one’s relation to God, is that one sincerely believes that one acts in accordance with natural law. On the revised view, then, Hobbes allows that individuals commit culpable evils in the natural state when they act against their conscience. In that case they wrong God. 73

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There are at least two reasons why Hobbes may have decided to introduce this amendment in the second edition of De Cive. First, it allows him to censure actions contrary to natural law by sovereigns, for instance acts of cruelty against their subjects. While such actions do not wrong citizens, and accordingly citizens have no standing to protest, they do wrong God. Although a sovereign “may do so rightly, i.e. without inflicting a wrong on himself, he will not do so justly [juste], that is, without violating natural laws and wronging God” (DCv 6.13n: 83; QLNC: 135). Second, it may help him to characterize treason as a culpable evil. Hobbes argues that treason or the “crime of lèse-majesté” (DCv 14.20–21: 165–6) is a violation of natural not civil law. It is the renunciation of the agreement to obey the sovereign and so a renunciation of all civil laws together. “This evil [malum],” Hobbes observes, “is more serious than any single sin [peccato] as constant sinning is more serious than a single sin” (DCv 14.20: 165). Both immoral acts by the sovereign and treason by citizens are actions that Hobbes wants to censure, not merely as imprudent but as culpable evil. This requires him to admit that it possible to sin in the strict sense by violating natural law. There are, however, two difficulties with the resulting view that Hobbes can be understood to resolve in Leviathan. First, the amendment suggests that Hobbes now thinks that sins in the strict signification are always relational wrongs. Violations of natural law (characterized as acts contrary to one’s conscience) in the state of nature are wrongs against God. Violations of the civil law, analogously, are wrongs against the commonwealth (DCv 3.3: 44) and “against right” (DCv 12.2: 133). By violating the civil law we violate the original agreement by which we have transferred our rights to the sovereign, thereby wronging the commonwealth (DCv 3.4: 45; DCv 1.10n: 28). If this is what Hobbes has in mind, though, it is inconsistent with the original argument for the view that violations of the civil law are a culpable evil. On the original view sins are not relational wrongs: we sin when we violate the civil law because we do not, on the authoritative judgment of the commonwealth, pursue our self-preservation. On the amended view, however, violations of the civil law are a sin because they are violations of the civil law, since in so doing we wrong the commonwealth. Second, Hobbes would presumably want to maintain that wrongs against the commonwealth are always also sins against God. This could be so because “natural law commands that all civil laws be observed in virtue of the natural law which forbids the violation of agreements” (DCv 14.10: 159). The difficulty, however, is that Hobbes holds that one only sins against God if one acts against one’s conscience. Accordingly, actions violating the civil law that one mistakenly but sincerely thinks are required by natural law, are not sinful. It is true that Hobbes argues that civil laws can safely be obeyed since the sovereign, not the citizen, sins if the civil law requires an action contrary to God’s laws (DCv 12.2: 132–3; for doubts about that argument see Murphy 1995). However, this does not establish the converse claim: that citizens cannot safely disobey the civil law, even if they conscientiously judge it to be necessary. In Leviathan Hobbes addresses both problems. He removes all traces of the original argument from the first edition of De Cive, and introduces a distinction between “sins” and “crimes” to capture more clearly the distinct relational wrongs one may commit (against God and against the commonwealth). He defines a “crime” as “a sinne, consisting in the Committing . . . of that which the Law forbiddeth, or the Omission of what it hath commanded” (L 27.2: 452). This definition leaves undetermined whether a crime is a violation of natural or civil law. He clarifies that crimes are violations of civil law when he observes that crimes are sins “whereof man may accuse another” (L 27.2: 454) and notes that “the Civill Law ceasing, Crimes cease: for there being no other Law remaining, but that of Nature, there is no place for Accusation” (L 27.3: 454). On this definition of a crime, then, it is impossible that that one violates the civil law 74

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without sin, even if one – wrongly but sincerely – holds the view that the crime is necessary for ones preservation and thus demanded by natural law. Hobbes provides two related reasons why crimes, violations of civil law, are the appropriate object of accusation by fellow humans. First, as violations of the civil law, crimes are actions without right. That is why “there is an Injury done” and those injured have standing to hold the violator to account in a court of law (L 27.54: 480; also L 42.111: 900). Second, crimes are actions, not merely intentions, contrary to the civil law. For intentions that “never appear by any outward act, there is no place for accusation” (L 27.2: 454; also L 27.3: 454). We have no knowledge of the intentions of others, which accordingly “cannot be argued by a humane Judge.” However, forming the intention to transgress civil law is a “sinne, though it never appeare in Word, or Fact: for God that seeth the thoughts of man, can lay it to his charge” (L 27.2: 452–4). In Leviathan Hobbes defines sin as “not onely a Transgression of a Law, but also any Contempt of the Legislator,” where contempt of the legislator includes having an “the Intention, or purpose to transgresse” (L 27.1: 452). Again, he leaves undetermined whether a sin, qua sin, is a violation of natural or civil law. Since intentions to violate a civil law are sins by virtue of God’s standing to accuse the person, sins must be (also) violations of natural law. As in De Cive he maintains that violations of natural law wrong God. He notes this when emphasizing that sovereigns who violate natural law do not wrong their citizens. He compares such actions against natural law – he now calls them “iniquitous” actions – with David’s murder of Uriah. Though David’s action was “against the law of Nature, as being contrary to Equitie . . . yet it was not an Injurie to Uriah; but to God . . . because David was Gods Subject; and prohibited all Iniquitie by the law of Nature” (L 21.7: 330). A sovereign never acts without right in relation to his subjects but he may act without right in relation to God. In the second edition of De Cive, Hobbes had claimed that only acts against conscience are sinful. He may appear to be committed to the same position in Leviathan when he maintains that, in respect to the natural law, “every man being his own Judge, and accused onely by his own Conscience, and cleared by the Uprightnesse of his own Intention,” therefore, when “his Intention is Right, his fact is no Sinne: if otherwise, his fact is Sinne; but not Crime” (L 27.3: 454). He also maintains that in conscience – the “Court of Naturall justice” – ”God raigneth” (L 30.30: 552; also L30.1: 520). This position, as noted above, exposes Hobbes to the objection that individuals who sincerely believe that they should violate natural law do not commit a sin in doing so. In Leviathan he responds by emphasizing that the law of nature is “eternal” and therefore that the “Violation of Covenants, Ingratitude, Arrogance, and all Facts contrary to any Morall virtue, can never cease to be Sinne” (L27.3: 454; also EL 1.17.14: 94). Anyone who has “attained to the use of Reason” is supposed to know what the law of nature requires (L 27.4: 454–6). Indeed, “only Children, and Madmen are Excused from offences against the Law Naturall” (L 27.23: 468). By emphasizing that ignorance of natural law is itself culpable, Hobbes can characterize as sinful, violations of natural law in accordance with conscience.

Sin and spiritual obligations I now turn to Hobbes’s treatment of culpable evil in spiritual matters. Hobbes’s primary aim is, as noted, to defend the view that individuals owe simple obedience to their sovereign. This obligation is grounded in the fundamental natural law requiring the avoidance of a premature death. Hobbes, however, admits that damnation in the afterlife is a worse fate than death in this life. The damned, on his eccentric reading of Scripture, are subjected to a lifetime of “Torments of Hell” before being condemned to a “second Death” that lasts for eternity (L 38.13: 716; also 75

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AB: 87–92). He therefore admits without reservation that “if the command [of a sovereign] be such, as cannot be obeyed, without being damned to Eternall Death, then it were madnesse to obey it” (L 43.2: 928–30; also DCv 18.1: 235; DCv 6.11: 80; EL 2.6.5: 147). A full defense of his political philosophy, then, requires showing what is necessary for salvation and entry into the “Kingdom of heaven” (DCv 18.2: 235) and why this is consistent with obedience to earthly sovereigns. In this section I outline this argument. Hobbes’s basic strategy remains the same in all iterations of his political philosophy. He maintains that two things are necessary for salvation. The first is “Faith in Christ” (L 43.3: 930), a sincere belief that “Jesus is the Messiah, that is, the Christ” (EL 2.6.6: 148, also DCv 18.6: 239; L 43.11: 938). On the basis of a number of Scriptural arguments, many of which his contemporaries would have found unpersuasive,1 he concludes that this is “[t]he (Vnum Necessarium) Onely Article of Faith” necessary to salvation and to entry into the kingdom of Heaven (L 43.11: 938). The second is obedience to God’s laws, “which are the laws of the kingdom of heaven, in which consisteth Christian obedience” (EL 2.6.10: 155; also DCv 18.3: 235; L 43.3: 930). God’s laws, as already noted, are the laws of nature and require that one always obey one’s civil sovereign (L 43.5: 932). By obedience, Hobbes notes, he means not actual obedience but the sincere attempt to obey. If God required unfailing obedience to the law no person would be saved, Hobbes argues, since “wee are all guilty of disobedience to Gods Law, not onely originally in Adam, but also actually by our own transgressions” (L 43.3: 930). This is precisely why we must have faith in Christ and why obedience to the law is no sufficient condition for salvation. Our faith in Christ is rewarded by remission of our sins (L 43.3: 930; DCv 18.3: 236; DCv 18.12: 244; EL 2.6.10: 155; although God only forgives the sins of those who repent and obey [DCv 18.3, p.236]). Faith in Christ and obedience to the laws, then, are required for salvation. Is simple obedience to one’s earthly sovereign consistent with one’s salvation? The answer is straightforwardly affirmative if one is subject to a Christian sovereign. A Christian sovereign would never compel subjects to renounce the faith that is required for their salvation. “As long as sovereigns profess to be Christians,” Hobbes submits, “they cannot command their subjects to deny Christ or to treat him contemptuously” (DCv 18.13: 245; also EL 2.6.11: 157). In a Christian commonwealth, in other words, it is impossible that the demands of the civil law are inconsistent with the demands of God (L 43.22: 952). Things are more complicated when one is subject to a non-Christian ruler. Hobbes’s answer in this case reveals a development in his thinking about the nature of spiritual obligations. In both The Elements and De Cive, Hobbes maintains that Christian faith, as condition for salvation, requires its public profession. Besides atheism Hobbes classifies idolatry and apostasy – the “renunciation of the article, that Jesus is the Christ” – as treason against God (DCv 18.11: 244). If an infidel sovereign compels subjects to “renounce” (EL 2.6.11: 157) their faith, they cannot do so without committing a sin that endangers their entry into the kingdom of Heaven. That is why Hobbes admits that Christians may rightfully and without sin forbear obedience to commands to commit apostasy or idolatry, even if it means they die as martyrs in apparent contravention of the moral law requiring self-preservation. It cannot be expected that “a man should perform that, for which he believeth in his heart he shall be damned eternally” (EL 2.6.14: 159). In De Cive, Hobbes clarifies that this exception to the requirement of simple obedience to one’s earthly sovereign does not justify violent resistance. “Are princes to be resisted when they are not to be obeyed?” asks Hobbes rhetorically. “Of course not! This is contrary to the civil agreement. What then must one do? Go to Christ through Martyrdom” (DCv 18.13: 245). One must accept the punishment the civil sovereign has in store for those unwilling to “deny Christ or to treat him contemptuously” (DCv 18.13: 245). Indeed, Hobbes points out, someone who really believes with “his whole heart that JESUS IS THE CHRIST” will “long to be dissolved 76

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and to be with Christ” (DCv 18.13: 245; a reference to Philippians 1.23 where Paul says that he has a “desire to depart, and to be with Christ” See McClure 2016: 96). In Leviathan Hobbes no longer maintains that the public profession of faith in Christ is a necessary condition for salvation. He now writes that “Faith, it is internal, and invisible; They have the licence that Naaman had, and need not put themselves into danger for it” (L 43.23: 954). He had from the outset argued that God is concerned with individuals’ righteousness in conscience when it comes to obedience to the law. He now increases the coherence of his theory by maintaining the same for the requirement of having faith. If one is required to publicly denounce one’s faith under an infidel sovereign it is not a sin as long as one sincerely believes that Jesus is the Christ. Public worship and professions of faith are “but an externall thing” (L 42.11: 784). The view that idolatry and apostasy are no obstacle to salvation requires an idiosyncratic reading of Scripture. Hobbes draws on the story of Naaman, who converted to the “God of Israel” while publicly worshiping the “Idol Rimmon,” as required by his Syrian sovereign. While “he denyed the true God in effect, as much as if he had done with his lips,” Hobbes argues that the verse shows that the prophet Elisha granted him this liberty by saying that “the Lord pardon thy servant in this thing” (L 42.11: 784, also AB: 48). Hobbes’s readers are very skeptical of this argument, which may explain why he was initially hesitant to defend it. Thomas Tenison objects that Hobbes misunderstands “the Faith of the Gospel, which is not complete, unless the outward profession answereth to the inward act of assent” (Tenison 1670: 199), a mistake that Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, calls a “monstrous Impiety” (Clarendon 1676: 250). John Whitehall objects that this one passage is too slender a textual basis for such a controversial doctrine, “for the Prophet’s bidding Naaman go in peace might be an Error in the Prophet” (Whitehall 1679: 63). In the Appendix of the Latin Leviathan Hobbes nevertheless refuses to change his position. He asks if the prophet, by declaring to Naaman, “Go in peace,” may mean to be “saying goodbye” rather than giving license to Naaman’s idolatry, and answers in the negative. In the passage “those words cannot be understood in any way other than as a permission” and he references the Nicene Council in support of his view (LLA 3: 1239–41). His changing views on the nature of faith also impact his assessment of martyrdom. Where he had in De Cive explicitly endorsed martyrdom, in Leviathan his stance is more equivocal. He still permits disobedience, saying that if individuals decide to disobey the civil sovereign “they ought to expect their reward in heaven and not complain of their Lawfull Sovereign; much lesse make warre upon him” (L 43.23: 954; L 45.28: 1038). However, he now notes that a true martyr is a “Witnesse of the Resurrection of Jesus the Messiah” and therefore only those who were instructed directly by Christ to profess their belief openly and gave their lives for it could be properly called martyrs (L 42.12: 786). Those who disobey the civil sovereign merely because they are asked to renounce their faith are “not obliged to suffer death . . . because being not called thereto, tis not required at his hands; nor ought hee to complain, if he loseth the reward he expectedth from those that never set him on work” (L 42.14: 788). Hobbes’s assessment of martyrdom in Leviathan, as response to the rule of an infidel sovereign, then, is ambiguous; by disobeying their lawful sovereign they do not just risk dying a natural death but also forgoing eternal felicity (Chadwick 2018).

Free will, moral evil, and God’s omnipotence I now turn to consider the implications of Hobbes’s ontology for his treatment of the nature of evil. While he is from the outset committed to denying the existence of “free will,” it is only when he becomes embroiled in a long-running intellectual dispute with Bishop John 77

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Bramhall (1594–1663) that he considers in Of Liberty and Necessity (1645, published 1654) and The Questions of Liberty Necessity and Chance (1656) the philosophical and theological implications of his materialistic-necessitarianism. Hobbes does not deny that we can attribute freedom to individuals; they are free when they are unconstrained by external impediments to act as they want (LN § 29: 38, also QLNC: 273–4; L 21.2: 324). Neither does he deny that individuals can act voluntarily; they act voluntarily when their action follows, or is informed by, their will or choice (LN § 25: 37). What he denies is that their will or choice itself is voluntary, that they have the capacity to determine their own will or, in other words, have “Free-will” (L 21.2: 324, also QLNC: 143). Their will, which is ultimately but a physical motion in the body, is determined by necessary antecedent causes as any other motion in the universe (LN § 30: 38). Bishop Bramhall raises several philosophical and theological objections to this form of compatiblism, based on the traditional view that individuals are the appropriate object of moral approbation and blame only by virtue of having free will. He thinks that Hobbes can defend his account of human freedom only by destroying the very foundation of morality and Christian faith. I discuss the philosophical and the theological issues in turn, starting with the former. Bramhall is persuaded that by denying freedom of the will Hobbes is no longer justified in attributing to individuals culpable evils. Hobbes in the first instance invokes the agent-relativity of value to defend the appropriateness of such judgments. Why do we blame a person who was necessitated to steal? “I answer,” responds Hobbes, “because th’y please us not” (QLNC: 39). There is in this sense, he admits, no distinction between blaming a person for having sinned and blaming fire for laying waste to a house, although in the former but not the latter case would we “seek to be revenged” (QLNC: 40). Bramhall retorts that when we blame a person we are concerned with a specific kind of evil, namely the “moral evil of an action,” which consists in “the bad use of liberty” (QLNC: 130), when individuals freely act against right reason or the moral law. That is why we admonish those with the use of reason, “men of understanding,” but not “fools, children, or madmen,” because the former but not the latter “have the use of reason, and true liberty, with a dominion over their own actions” (QLNC: 144). Hobbes in turn replies by invoking his formal definition of a sin as violation of the law and a consequentialist argument about the appropriateness of blaming those who have the capacity to reason. We admonish “men of understanding,” he observes, because their rationality allows them to change their behavior. They, unlike fools and madmen, can come to see the error of their ways (QLNC: 145). Additionally, moral blame is not, as Bramhall suggests, “from the bad use of liberty, but from disobedience to the laws,” since to say “a thing is good, is to say it is as I, or another would wish, or as the State would have it, or according to the Law of the Land” (QLNC: 146–7). In this answer, Hobbes returns to his position from the first edition of De Cive, where he had maintained that sins are actions aimed at what is evil (i.e., that displease us) according to right reason, with right reason being the judgment of the state (i.e., the civil law). One may wonder if Hobbes would have been able to provide a similarly persuasive reply for his mature, relational, account of sin from Leviathan. Hobbes’s defense of the appropriateness of punishment for sins follows a very similar structure. Bramhall objects that Hobbes is committed to a view that renders civil laws “unjust and tyrannical” since the laws “prescribe things absolutely impossible in themselves to be done, and punish men for not doing them” (QLNC: 118). Hobbes responds, first, by reiterating his account of justice. Laws are just, simply by virtue of the fact that they are the commands of the civil sovereign in whom all citizens have “consenteth to the placing of the Legislative Power” (QLNC: 133; also QLNC; 115, 138). Second, Hobbes reminds Bramhall of his consequentialist, forward-looking justification of penalties. In his political works Hobbes had as one of the laws of nature derived the principle that in punishment (“retribution of Evil for Evil”) 78

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(L 15.19: 232) one ought only to “consider future good, not past evil” (DCv 3.11: 49; also L 15.19: 232; L 28.6: 484). Penalties are justified because and insofar as they have a corrective and preventative function (QLNC: 115–16). Revenge for the sake of revenge is without purpose and only apt to increase the likelihood of renewed war contrary to the fundamental law of nature (DCv 3.11: 49). Bramhall, Hobbes objects, has a retributivist account of punishment; he: taketh punishment for a kind of revenge, and can never therefore agree with me that [I] take it for nothing else but for a correction, or for an example, which hath for end the framing and necessitating of the Will to virtue. (QLNC: 134) The enforcement of laws prevents individuals from committing sins, and is so a “cause of Justice” (QLNC: 116). Finally, Hobbes notes that the sovereign is not subject to any civil law and acts with an undiminished right of nature. The sovereign may inflict harm on a subject in a way that is contrary to natural law, and therefore without right and unjust in relation to God, but it cannot be unjust in relation to the subject (QLNC: 116; also L 28.2: 482). Again, Bramhall is wrong to complain that the law that sanctions punishment could be unjust because it allows for punishments of crimes or sins that were necessitated, since the sovereign punishes by natural right. While Hobbes accordingly shows that his moral and political philosophy provide him with resources to counter Bramhall’s objections – by foregrounding his idiosyncratic definitions of terms like justice and sin – it is difficult to see how Hobbes can defend the contractualist basis of the commonwealth, and the practice of rights transfers, in the face of his materialistic-determinism, except by definitional fiat (Riley 1973). I now turn to the second set of objections, related to the theological implications of Hobbes’s views. In the theological context the most serious issue confronting him, as a scandalized Bramhall observes, is that he “makes the first cause, that is, God Almighty, to be the introducer of all evil, and sin into the world” (QLNC: 84; also QLNC: 174–5). Hobbes is intent on defending this claim while denying the heretical implications that Bramhall thinks follow from it, namely, first, that God’s introduction of evil in the world should be reprimanded as itself sinful, and, second, that individuals, whose actions are necessitated by God, are innocent and may not justly be subject to God’s punishment (QLNC: 85). In doing so he emphasizes the similarities between his view and those of Reformation theologians such as Luther and Calvin.2 Hobbes argues, first, that God can never sin. Bramhall thinks that if an evil action is necessitated we should blame God, not the person, as ultimate cause of the sin (QLNC: 223). Hobbes responds by denying the equivalence of causing a sin and sinning itself (QLNC: 235). The argument is based on his conception of culpable evil as actions against the law. He admits that God has ordered the world in such a way that a person may be necessarily caused to commit an act against the law. However, since God “is not subject to some higher Power,” and thus not subject to any law, he himself cannot sin (QLNC: 234–45; also QLNC: 105; LN § 12: 23). Additionally, Hobbes denies that God lacks the right to anything. In De Cive, he had introduced the view that God’s right to rule derives from his omnipotence seemingly to explain the noncontractual basis of God’s sovereignty (DCv 15.5: 173). In response to Bramhall’s objections, he employs it to deny that God’s actions can ever be censured as sinful or unjust. “Power irresistible justifies all actions,” and accordingly God “must needs be just in all his actions” (LN § 12: 22–3; also QLNC: 87–9). That is why the mere fact that God does something “makes it just and consequently no sin” (LN § 12: 23; QLNC: 79, 105; LL 46: 1091–3). 79

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Second, Hobbes defends the claim that, even if God causes all actions, a person can be accused of culpable evil. Bramhall objects that Hobbes makes God “the Author of all the defects and evils which are in the world” (QLNC: 174–5). Hobbes responds by noting that, if God really is the author of the sins of individuals, he must have authorized or given warrant to those sins. This response is prompted by his account of authorization and personification in chapter 16 of Leviathan. There he argues that a person is the “AUTHOR” of an action when the person is represented in the action, either because the person represents himself, or because he authorizes and is represented by another who accordingly “is said to beare his Person, or act in his name” (L16.3: 244). He denies that we have reason to think that God has authorized us to act in his name. Nowhere in Scripture, “which is all the warrant we have from God,” do we find an authorization to commit sins. Therefore, Hobbes concludes, “God is the cause (not the Author) of all Actions” (QLNC: 175; also QLNC: 105–6; LL 46: 1091–3). Furthermore, he notes, if it were the case that God did authorize an action against the law, it would no longer be sinful (QLNC: 106). He has two reasons for saying this. First, natural law is the command of God, and if God authorizes an action contrary to his own command it cannot be understood that the law was his command in the first place. Second, even if it were, in authorizing the action God (not the individual) is now the author of the action, and God, as we have seen, is not subject to any law and therefore cannot sin. The resulting view gives rise to the objection that God nevertheless causes evil action that he subsequently punishes with eternal damnation. Bramhall dismisses this conception of God as dishonorable, since it makes God a “Tyrant” who imposes laws on his subjects that they are unable to obey (QLNC: 85; also QLNC: 13, 87, 91). Hobbes has what should now be a familiar response: God’s omnipotence is a sufficient justification for the punishment. God’s right to punish sinners is not formally dependent on the sinfulness of the action. Even if God punishes a person “because he sinned, one must not say that he could not justly have afflicted or killed him even if he had not sinned” (DCv 15.5: 173; DCv 15.6: 174; but see DCv 4.9: 61–2, where Hobbes suggests that the “only purpose” God had in introducing “eternal punishment” was “that men should fear to sin in the future”). This means that God may indeed “command a thing openly, and yet hinder the doing of it, without injustice” (QLNC: 79); he may demand that individuals act in accordance with natural law while simultaneously cause them to violate it. He does all this with right and it is “no dishonour to believe that God is a greater Tyrant than ever was in the world; for he is the King of all Kings” (QLNC: 175).

Conclusion Hobbes’s engagement with the nature of evil is wide-ranging. His political preoccupations lead him to consider the nature of evil both in temporal and spiritual matters, arguing that if citizens obey their civil sovereign, they do not sin nor risk eternal damnation. He emphasizes death as the chief evil that can befall individuals in this life, and maintains that sinning consists in actions that frustrate the end of self-preservation, either because they are in contravention of the civil law or because the person acting does not believe that they contribute to their self-preservation. This position, he argues, is consistent with revealed religion, since the Bible teaches that salvation requires only a sincere belief that Jesus is the Christ and obedience to the laws of the civil sovereign. In the debate with Bishop John Bramhall, Hobbes confronts the question whether his treatment of evil is consistent with a denial of free will, as entailed by the metaphysical commitments that had formed the bedrock of his moral philosophy from the outset. It is in this context that the inflammatory implications – both philosophical and theological – of his treatment of evil and sin are most clearly in view. It is also the location where he is perhaps most 80

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audacious, attributing the capacity to commit culpable evil to individuals who lack free will, and describing God as a “Tyrant” who, by virtue of his omnipotence, can do no wrong. In doing so, Hobbes shows himself to be a formidable thinker whose views, however disagreeable, demand the close attention of the reader that chances upon them.

Abbreviations of cited works of Hobbes AB Hobbes, T. (1682) An Answer to a Book Published by Dr Bramhall. . . Called The Catching of the Leviathan, London: W. Crooke at the Green Dragon. DCo Hobbes, T. (1839) De Corpore, trans. as Elements of Philosophy. The First Section, Concerning Body, in W. Molesworth (ed.) The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, vol. I, London: John Bohn. DCv Hobbes, T. (1998) De Cive, trans. as On the Citizen, ed. R. Tuck and M. Silverthorne, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DH Hobbes, T. (1991) De Homine, trans. in Man and Citizen, ed. B. Gert, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett. EL Hobbes, T. (1969) The Elements of Law, ed. F. Tönnies, London: Frank Cass. L Hobbes, T. (2012), Leviathan, in N. Malcolm (ed.) Leviathan: The English and Latin Texts, Oxford: Clarendon Press. LL Hobbes, T. (2012), Latin Leviathan, in N. Malcolm (ed.) Leviathan: The English and Latin Texts, Oxford: Clarendon Press. LLA Hobbes, T. (2012), “Appendix to Leviathan,” in N. Malcolm (ed.) Leviathan: Thee English and Latin Texts, Oxford: Clarendon Press. LN Hobbes, T. (1999), “Of Liberty and Necessity,” in V. Chappell (ed.) Hobbes and Bramhall on Liberty and Necessity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. QLNC Hobbes, T. (1656), The Questions Concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance, London: Andrew Crook. References to DCo, DCv, DH, and L are given by chapter, section and page number. References to the notes added to the second edition of DCv include “n” after the section number. References to LN are given by paragraph and page number. References to LL and LLA are given by chapter and page number.

Notes 1 Somos 2014: 110 concludes that “most of its hundreds of biblical interpretations are . . . conspicuously untenable and where recognised as such by Hobbes’ contemporaries.” See e.g., Tenison 1670: 207. 2 Some recent commentators see Hobbes as being engaged in a sincere reconstruction of a reformation theology (Overhoff 1997). Others are more skeptical, dismissing his references to reformation theologians as opportunistic and polemical (Pacchi 1989) or more moderately, as having no constitutive role to play in his philosophical development (Collins 2005: 265). As Cromartie (2018) points out, it seems indeed clear that his use of protestant positions, even if held sincerely, was aimed to support and justify to a religious audience metaphysical and political views that he was committed to for independent reasons.

References Chadwick, A. (2018) “Hobbes on the Motives of Martyrs,” in L. van Apeldoorn, and R. Douglass (eds.) Hobbes on Politics and Religion, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Clarendon (1676) A Brief View and Survey of the Dangerous and Pernicious Errors to Church and State, In Mr. Hobbes’s Book, Entitled Leviathan, Oxford: Theater. Collins, J. (2005) The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Cromartie, A. (2018) “Hobbes, Calvinism, and Determinism,” in L. van Apeldoorn and R. Douglass (eds.) Hobbes and the Politics of Religion, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Duncan, S. (2005) “Hobbes’s Materialism in the Early 1640s,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 13(3): 437–48. McClure, C. (2016) Hobbes and the Artifice of Eternity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. McNeilly, F. (1966) “Egoism in Hobbes,” The Philosophical Quarterly 16(64): 193–206.


Laurens van Apeldoorn Murphy, M. (1995) “Hobbes on Conscientious Disobedience,” Archiv fur Geschichte der Philosophie 77: 263–84 Murphy, M. C. (2000). “Hobbes on the Evil of Death,” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, 782(1): 36–61, Olsthoorn, J. (2014) “Worse than Death: The Non-Preservationist Foundations of Hobbes’s Moral Philosophy,” Hobbes Studies 27(2): 148–70. Overhoff, J. (1997) “The Lutheranism of Thomas Hobbes,” History of Political Thought 28(4): 604–23. Riley, P. (1973) “Will and Legitimacy in the Philosophy of Hobbes: Is He a Consent Theorist?” Political Studies 21(4): 506–22. Pacchi, A. (1989), “Some Guidelines into Hobbes’s Theology,” Hobbes Studies 2(1): 87–103. Somos, M. (2014) “Mare Clausum, Leviathan, and Oceana: Bible Criticsm, Secularisation and Imperialism in Seventeenth-Century English Political and Legal Thought,” in C. Crouch and J. Stökl (eds.), In the Name of God: The Bible in the Colonial Discourse of Empire, Leiden: Brill. Strauss, L. (1952) The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Tenison, T. (1670) The Creed of Mr. Hobbes Examined in a Feigned Conference between Him and a Student in Divinity, London: Francis Tyton. Tuck, R. (1979) Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Whitehall, J. (1679) The Leviathan Found out: Or the Answer to Mr Hobbes’s Leviathan, In That Which my Lord of Clarendon Hath Past Over, London: A. Godbid, and I. Playford.


6 LEIBNIZ ON EVIL God’s justice in the best of all possible worlds Agustín Echavarría

Introduction1 In his novella Candide, or Optimism, Voltaire introduces a character named Pangloss, a German professor who teaches that one should be content with the calamities that occur in the world, since this is the best of all possible worlds. Pangloss’s naïve optimism is considered a caricature of the positions G.W. Leibniz defended.2 These views were greatly discredited in European intellectual circles after the spectacle of natural and moral evil shown during Lisbon’s earthquake in 1755. The intellectual environment of the critics of the mid-eighteenth century, however, differed sharply from the context of concerns that gave rise to the release of Essays of Theodicy in 1710, Leibniz’s main work on the problem of evil. The term Theodicy, coined by Leibniz himself, is a compound of “justice” (in Greek, diké) and “God” (in Greek, theós), meaning “the justification of God.” The primary aim of the book was to reply to the fideistic arguments of Pierre Bayle, who, in his Historical and Critical Dictionary (and more precisely in the entry on Manicheans), defended the position that human reason cannot give a satisfactory answer to the problem of the apparent incompatibility between the existence of evil and God’s goodness and wisdom. Leibniz’s Theodicy, however, is the highlight of a continuous reflection that lasted his entire life. His concern with the problem of evil appears in his very early works, such as On the Omnipotence and Omniscience of God and the Freedom of Man (1670–1671?) and The Confession of a Philosopher (1672–1673?), reappearing constantly in every stage of his philosophical production. In this context, rather than earthquakes and natural evils,3 Leibniz’s main concern was to make compatible the different theological positions of his time concerning the justice of God given the unequal dispensation of grace, salvation, and damnation.4 As he states in The Confession of a Philosopher: If God is delighted by the happiness of everyone, why did he not make everyone happy? If he loves everyone, how is it that he damns so many? If he is just, how is it that he presents himself as so unfair that from matter that is the same in every respect, from the same clay, he brings forth some vessels intended for honor, others intended for disgrace? And how is it that he is not a promoter of sin if, having knowledge of it (though he could have eliminated it from the world), he admitted it or tolerated it? Indeed, how is it that he is not the author of sin, if he created everything in such a manner that 83

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sin followed? And what of free choice, when the necessity of sin has been posited, and what of the justice of punishment, when free choice has been taken away? And what of the justice of reward, if grace alone brings it about that some are distinguished from others? Finally, if God is the ultimate ground of things, what do we impute to men and what to devils? (A VI 3: 118; trans. CP: 33)5 In spite of the theological character of these questions, Leibniz’s approach to the problem of evil is eminently metaphysical, and his solution is a consistent philosophical system, allegedly acceptable to all Christian confessions, aiming at the simultaneous preservation of divine justice and human free will. In this chapter I will systematically present Leibniz’s doctrine on evil, as it appears in his works taken as a whole, only mentioning the usual minor differences and nuances between the different stages of his writings when necessary. The exposition will be divided in three parts. In the first part I will introduce Leibniz’s understanding of the nature of evil and its different kinds. In the second part, I will show how Leibniz places the origin of the possibility of evil in the divine intellect, as a strategy to exonerate God from being the author of evil. In the third part, I will deal with Leibniz’s concept of God’s election of the best of all possible worlds and the meaning of God’s allowing for evil.

The nature of evil and its different kinds Even though Leibniz does not have an extensive systematic approach to the nature of evil, it is possible to find two main characterizations of evil in his writings, corresponding roughly to two different stages in his thought: the characterization of evil as “dissonance” and the description of evil as “privation.” The characterization of evil as dissonance is more frequent in Leibniz’s early writings, and progressively disappears toward his mature works.6 This characterization has its clear roots in the neo-Platonic tradition, and in particular in Saint Augustine, who frequently compares evil not with dissonance but with silence in music.7 Leibniz’s Conversation with Steno Concerning Freedom gives a good example of this description: the ultimate ground of sin is not the will itself of a loving God but the nature of the universal perfection of things, which requires that a picture should be set off by shadows and that a melody should be enlivened by dissonances. (A VI 4: 1383; trans. CP: 129) Leibniz’s conception of evil as dissonance, present in many other works,8 is not a mere metaphor. In Leibniz’s metaphysics the universe itself constitutes a “universal harmony” (A VI 3: 130), in which every substance is connected with the others (A VI 4B: 1618), and in which the variety and multiplicity of things is reducible, through reciprocal relations of expression, to a fundamental unity (A VI 4B: 1542). Harmony is, thus, a fundamental ontological law of reality. In this context, the characterization of evil as a dissonance that increases harmony implies that evil has the role of a sort of ontological booster of harmony and, thus, of the perfection of the universe.9 The second characterization of evil that we find in Leibniz’s works corresponds to the classical Augustinian definition of evil as privation. In his early writings, such as The Author of Sin (1673?), Leibniz rejects this definition, because he considers that it makes God the author of evil. Indeed, he explains that, if God is the author of everything that is real and positive in the act of sin, it would seem that He is also the author of the disconformity between the action and the law, in the same way that a painter is the author of the disproportion between two different-sized 84

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paintings, since “the privation is nothing but a simple result or infallible consequence of the positive aspect, without requiring a separate author” (A VI 3: 151; trans. CP: 113).10 From the 1680s onward, once Leibniz settled his main strategy to arguing about the problem of evil, he begins to use the concept of privation positively to give an account of evil. Leibniz commences to use the term “privation” as a synonym for “limitation,” affirming that the original limitation of creatures – which they have naturally by the fact that they come from “nothing” – is the root of every evil. As he points out, “the cause of evil [must be placed] in no-being or privation, that is, in the natural limitation or weakness of things, which is the same as the original imperfection prior to original sin” (A VI 4C: 2321–2).11 In his mature writings, Leibniz uses the term “privation” to refer to evil in itself, and not just to its metaphysical root: “The Platonists and Augustine himself have shown that the good has a positive cause, but evil is a defect, that is, a privation or negation and, hence, it comes from nothing or not-being” (Grua I: 364). These passages reveal some particularities of Leibniz’s definition of evil as privation that relate to the sources of his doctrine. Indeed, although Leibniz quotes Augustine and sometimes Aquinas on this issue,12 his immediate source is actually Eilhard Lubin, a Lutheran theologian he read and explicitly quotes (GP VI: 449). Lubin’s Phosphorus, On the First Cause and Nature of Evil (1596),13 directly influenced Leibniz’s understanding of the nature of evil. This influence is visible in at least two ways. In the first place, it is visible in the idea, frequently reiterated by Leibniz, that evil has its root in the fact that all creatures are metaphysically composed by “being” but also by “not-being.”14 Sadly, Leibniz does not develop this doctrine technically, though he expresses it comparing the creaturely constitution from “being” and “nothingness” with the origin of binary numbers, which are represented by the numerals 1 and 0.15 Second, Lubin’s influence is noticeable in Leibniz’s use of the terms “privation” and “negation.” Augustine16 and Aquinas17 usually distinguish between privative absence – i.e., the absence of a perfection that is owed to certain nature – and negative absence – the absence of a perfection on a subject absolutely considered. For instance, being blind is a privative absence for a being naturally provided with eyes, while not being able to fly is just a negative absence for a being not naturally provided with wings. Lubin18 and Leibniz, in their turn, tend to use “privation” and “negation” as synonyms (A VI 4A: 405).19 This terminological identification reveals a metaphysical ambiguity in Leibniz’s thought, making it hard to distinguish between privative and negative absences, and thus making it hard to distinguish between the condition of possibility of evil (found in the creature’s limitation) and the cause of its effective realization. One can find this ambiguity in Leibniz’s later writings, in which he uses the theory of privation to explain divine concurrence with creaturely evil actions. Contrary to what he expressed in his early writings, in the Essays of Theodicy he states that, while God is the author of every perfection or entity in creatures (including the entity of actions), He does not produce the lack of perfection that comes from the natural limitation of the creature: God is the cause of perfection in the nature and the actions of the creature, but the limitation of the receptivity of the creature is the cause of the defects there are in its action. Thus the Platonists, St. Augustine and the Schoolmen were right to say that God is the cause of the material element of evil which lies in the positive, and not of the formal element, which lies in privation. Even so one may say that the current is the cause of the material element of the retardation, but not of the formal: that is, it is the cause of the boat’s speed without being the cause of the limits to this speed. And God is no more the cause of sin than the river’s current is the cause of the retardation of the boat. (GP VI: 120–21, trans. H: 141) 85

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The characterization of evil as privation in Leibniz’s later works is intimately related to the threefold classification of “metaphysical,” “physical,” and “moral evil.” This division, reminiscent of that one offered by William King in his De origine mali (1704),20 has an ambiguous meaning. Indeed, in his Causa Dei (1710) Leibniz presents this classification as exclusive, dividing three different kinds of evils, and corresponding to the different kinds of goods found in reality: metaphysical good and evil consist in the perfection and imperfection of beings, even the non-intelligent ones. . . . Physical [good and evil] is applied in particular to the pleasant and unpleasant in intelligent substances, to which the evil of pain corresponds. . . . Moral [evil] is applied to virtuous and vicious actions, to which the evil of fault corresponds: and in this sense physical evil usually arises from moral evil although not always in the same subjects. (GP VI: 443) In the Essays of Theodicy, in its turn, the classification seems to refer to three different modes of consideration that can correspond in some cases to identical realities: “Evil may be taken metaphysically, physically and morally. Metaphysical evil consists in mere imperfection, physical evil in suffering, and moral evil in sin” (GP VI: 115, trans. H: 136). Taken in this second sense, every evil, physical or moral, would be an instance of metaphysical evil, insofar as they all represent a certain lack of perfection. Taken in the first sense, the distinction recovers the existence of instances of “pure” metaphysical evil. Paragraph 20 of the Essays of Theodicy, in which Leibniz defines the original imperfection of the creatures as the root of evil, in continuity with paragraph 21, in which he presents the classification of evil, led to the frequent identification of the original limitation with metaphysical evil.21 Some scholars have challenged this identification,22 suggesting that “metaphysical evil,” in its pure state, corresponds to the natural evil that affects irrational creatures.23 In any case, it seems plausible that, for Leibniz, even if it is not univocally identifiable with metaphysical evil, the creature’s original limitation is, at least, one of its species.

God’s intellect as the root of the possibility of evil On the one hand, Leibniz, as a Christian thinker, holds that all contingent beings (creatures) have their ultimate origin in a necessary being (God), which is the first principle that creates them. Thus, Leibniz cannot attribute the origin of evil to a different first principle – for instance, prime matter – like Manichaeans and Platonists do. On the other hand, he cannot ascribe the origin of evil to God’s intention. To solve this problem, Leibniz sets a clear strategy by establishing a sharp distinction between divine intellect and will, and attributing the origin of evil to the former, and not to the latter. As he states in the Essays of Theodicy: The ancients attributed the cause of evil to matter, which they believed uncreated and independent of God: but we, who derive all being from God, where shall we find the source of evil? The answer is, that it must be sought in the ideal nature of the creature, in so far as this nature is contained in the eternal verities which are in the understanding of God, independently of his will. (GP VI: 115; trans. H: 135)


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Indeed, for Leibniz, the divine intellect is not only where the necessary truths of reason are found, but also the realm of the essences of the possibility of things. God does not create the possibility of things – which does not depend on His will – but finds it as the necessary object of His intellect. As he states in his very early Letter to Magnus Wedderkopff, “the essences of things are just like numbers, and they contain the very possibility of entities, which God does not bring about, as He does existence, since these very possibilities—or ideas of things— coincide rather with God himself” (A II 1, 117; trans. CP, 3).24 He echoes this idea in his later Essays of Theodicy: In the region of the eternal verities are found all the possibles, . . . these very truths can have no existence without an understanding to take cognizance of them; for they would not exist if there were no divine understanding wherein they are realized, so to speak, (GP VI: 229; trans. H: 246) For Leibniz, the essences (or possibility of things) are the result of the combinatory activity of the divine intellect that establishes all the possible and infinite connections between all the possible subjects and all the possible predicates.25 This is precisely the meaning of Leibniz famous statement: “While God calculates and exercises His thought, He produces the world” (A VI 4A: 22). The combinations and connections between all the possible subjects and predicates are the ground of God’s omniscience, that is, the knowledge not only of possible things, but also of existing things, and of the subjunctive conditionals of created free will: All the propositional knowledge that is in God, be it of simple intelligence (concerning the essences of things), be it of vision (concerning the existences of things), be it middle knowledge (concerning the conditional existences), emerges immediately from the perfect understanding of each term that can be subject or predicate in a proposition; that is, all the a priori knowledge of the complex [terms] emerges from the understanding of the non-complex. (A VI 4B: 1515)26 For Leibniz, all possible beings are represented in God’s intellect, and distributed in maximal series.27 At least from the mid-1680s, Leibniz explicitly begins to call these series “possible worlds” (A VI 4B: 1612). These possible worlds are not the result of God’s arbitrary will or decree but are constituted by God’s intellect, following the criteria of logical non-contradiction and compossibility, since “[t]here are as many possible worlds as are imaginable series of things that do not imply contradiction” (Grua I: 397).28 As Leibniz explains in the tale of the “palace of destinies,” at the end of the Essays of Theodicy, these possible worlds are infinite in number, different in their degree of perfection, and hierarchically ordered in such a way that there is a “best possible world” placed at the top of the pyramid: amongst an endless number of possible worlds there is the best of all, else would God not have determined to create any; but there is not any one which has not also less perfect worlds below it: that is why the pyramid goes on descending to infinity. (GP VI: 364; trans. H: 372)


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Leibniz thus understands that every possible world is like a singular whole, so that every possible individual substance belongs only to one possible world, with which it is intrinsically connected. Therefore, all things are connected in each one of the possible worlds: the universe, whatever it may be, is all of one piece, like an ocean: the least movement extends its effect there to any distance whatsoever, even though this effect become less perceptible in proportion to the distance. Therein God has ordered all things beforehand once and for all, having foreseen prayers, good and bad actions, and all the rest; and each thing as an idea has contributed, before its existence, to the resolution that has been made upon the existence of all things; so that nothing can be changed in the universe (any more than in a number) save its essence or, if you will, save its numerical individuality. (GP VI: 252; trans. H: 128–9) Every possible world has an essential setting-up that constitutes it in its individuality, so every single thing each world contains is an intrinsic part of it. This implies that evil is included in every possible world the possibility of which (i.e., its non-contradiction) includes it. In other words, since in the divine intellect creatures are necessarily represented with all their essential properties, including their original imperfection, God necessarily understands all the possible evils that every possible world can contain. Thus, arguing against the Platonists who attribute the metaphysical origin of evil to matter, Leibniz attributes it to the divine understanding: therein is found not only the primitive form of good, but also the origin of evil: the Region of the Eternal Verities must be substituted for matter when we are concerned with seeking out the source of things. (GP VI: 115–16; trans. H: 136) Given that every possible world contains ontologically imperfect creatures, therefore certain kind of metaphysical evil – namely, the original imperfection of the creatures – belongs to every possible world. Nevertheless, while physical and moral evil are included in the possibility of many possible worlds, they are not in the possibility of all of them. Hence, Leibniz argues, the best of all possible worlds, which is the one that actually exists, includes some amount of the three kinds of evil, so that even though God, absolutely speaking, could have created a world without physical and moral evil, that world would have not been the best: although physical evil and moral evil be not necessary, it is enough that by virtue of the eternal verities they be possible. And as this vast Region of Verities contains all possibilities it is necessary that there be an infinitude of possible worlds, that evil enter into divers of them, and that even the best of all contain a measure thereof. Thus has God been induced to permit evil. (GP VI: 115, trans. H: 136) In other words, without the evil it includes, this world would not be the best of all possible worlds: if the smallest evil that comes to pass in the world were missing in it, it would no longer be this world; which, with nothing omitted and all allowance made, was found the best by the Creator who chose it. (GP VI: 252; trans. H: 129) 88

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This last statement has significant implications with regards to role of God’s will in the actualization of evil. Let’s consider now how a wise and benevolent God freely determines Himself to choose a world that contains a great variety and quantity of evils.

God’s election of the best and the permission of evil Against Spinoza, Leibniz considers that the existence of the actual world, or set of finite things, is contingent, since it is the result of an act of God’s free will and not of an absolute necessity (A VI 3: 581; A VI 4B: 1352). Leibniz grounds his claim that God is free when He creates in the fact that other infinite alternatives to the actual world are conceivable, and therefore possible, which means that God could have chosen any of them instead: “God chooses among the possibles, and for that very reason he chooses freely, and is not compelled; there would be neither choice nor freedom if there were but one course possible” (GP VI: 258, trans. H: 272–3).29 Indeed, Leibniz continues, even though all possible things as such tend toward existence according to their perfection or degree of essence (A VI 4B: 1443; GP VII: 303), not all of them can be put into existence together, since they are not all “compossible.” This means that they cannot coexist as a part of the same whole (A VI 3: 581–2; A VI 4B: 1354 and 1634). Hence, even in the realm of possible things there is a sort of struggle for existence among possible beings (Couturat: 534). This struggle for existence, far from being a blind and absolutely necessary process, is a metaphor of God’s process of deliberation, which leads to the election of the best possible combination of things.30 This notion is particularly clear in the following passage of the Essays of Theodicy, in which Leibniz roots this process in God’s faculties: The wisdom of God, not content with embracing all the possibles, penetrates them, compares them, weighs them one against the other, to estimate their degrees of perfection or imperfection, the strong and the weak, the good and the evil. It goes even beyond the finite combinations, it makes of them an infinity of infinites, that is to say, an infinity of possible sequences of the universe, each of which contains an infinity of creatures. By this means the divine Wisdom distributes all the possibles it had already contemplated separately, into so many universal systems which it further compares the one with the other. The result of all these comparisons and deliberations is the choice of the best from among all these possible systems, which wisdom makes in order to satisfy goodness completely; and such is precisely the plan of the universe as it is. (GP VI: 252, trans. H: 267–8)31 Even though God acts freely, He is also perfectly wise and good, and so His absolute perfection guarantees that He always acts according to the principle of the best.32 Still, Leibniz is always careful to highlight the free character of God’s first decree, which is the origin of all the existential and contingent true propositions, and consists precisely in the free decision of choosing the best (A VI 4B: 1548 and 1650).33 Leibniz resolves this apparent tension in the Essays of Theodicy by appealing to the notion – already present in some sixteenth-century Spanish Scholastic Jesuits – of “moral necessity.”34 Distinct from absolute and “metaphysical blind necessity” (GP VI: 321), the opposite of which implies contradiction, moral necessity is the necessity of the “wise” – for whom necessary and obligatory are equivalent (GP VI: 386) – and its opposite implies “moral absurdity” (GP VII: 304). 89

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By virtue of this moral necessity, God is morally obliged to create the best. If He created a less perfect world, or not create one at all, He would be responsible for a greater evil than the one he permits in the actual world: if God had not chosen the best series of the universe (in which sin occurs), He would have admitted something worse than the sin of all the creatures, since He would have revoked His own perfection and, therefore, also else’s [perfection]: because divine perfection should not renounce to choose the most perfect, given that the lesser good has the nature of evil. (GP VI: 449) These ideas bring up more clearly the problem of the relation between God’s will and evil. Leibniz always rejected the position of some extreme Calvinists who claimed that God is the author of evil. Following the traditional Augustinian formula,35 Leibniz affirms that God does not produce or will evil in the universe, but merely “permits” it.36 What is the real meaning of this claim? In his early writings, Leibniz seems to interpret it as meaning that, insofar as evil is included in the best series of things, God is the indirect or per accidens cause of evil, without making any distinction between different kinds of evils present in the world. He uses the following analogy: Just as a musician does not seek dissonances per se but only per accidens, when, through these very dissonances, subsequently resolved, a more perfect melody is created than would have existed without them, similarly, God does not want sins, except under the condition of punishment that corrects, and per accidens only, as a requirement for completing the perfection of the series. (A VI 4B: 1378, trans. CP: 119)37 From his commentary on Burnet’s article On Predestination (1701–1706) onwards, Leibniz introduces in his mature writings a classical distinction, taken from Aquinas and Scotus,38 between God’s antecedent and consequent will (DPG: 47, 97 and 123). This distinction, originally elaborated by John Damascene,39 was fashioned to make compatible God’s universal salvific will – according to which He wants every man to be saved (I Timothy 2, 4) – with the fact that some men wind up eternally damned. Leibniz presents this distinction with a completely new sense, consistent with his own metaphysical system.40 On the one hand, he universalizes the object of God’s antecedent will, with which God does not simply want every man to be saved, but also tends to actualize every possible being, absolutely considered – i.e., separated from the other things with which they could be combined – and to reject every possible evil (GP III: 31; GP VI: 382). On the other hand, following Arminius (a Dutch sixteenth-century moderate Calvinist theologian), Leibniz states that a will of God can be called “consequent” not just with respect to the free action of the creature but also with respect to other prior divine wills, which tend to partial combinations of compossible goods (GP VI: 382 and 442). Thus, in the same way that there is a struggle of possible beings in the divine intellect, there is also a struggle of divine wills before creation, so that God’s antecedent will is not only conditioned by the free action of the creature (considered beforehand in the realm of possible things), but also by other conflicting divine wills (GP VI: 443). Then, the consequent will, which is God’s definite and effective will, tends to the actualization of the best possible combination of goods, and


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it is the resulting force of all God’s antecedent wills taken together, once all the series are considered and weighted: this consequent will, final and decisive, results from the conflict of all the antecedent wills, of those which tend towards good, even as of those which repel evil; and from the concurrence of all these particular wills comes the total will. (GP VI: 116, trans. H: 136–7) Therefore, and to conclude on these ideas, the permission of evil concerns God’s consequent will, which, in order to actualize the best series, has to make place to evils that the best series includes (GP VI: 444; GP VI: 117). This general scheme of the distinction of divine wills is useful to understand the actualization of every evil. There are, however, some differences in the way God exercises His permission with regards to the different kinds of evil. In the case of natural evils and evils of pain, God wants them indirectly, and sometimes even as a means to an end (GP VI: 444). In the case of moral evil of fault, or sin, God does not want them either as means or as ends, but only admits them as a sine qua non condition for achieving the greatest perfection of the universe (GP VI: 203–4, 255 and 444). As Leibniz makes clear: God wills all good in himself antecedently, that he wills the best consequently as an end, that he wills what is indifferent, and physical evil, sometimes as a means, but that he will only permit moral evil as the sine qua non or as a hypothetical necessity which connects it with the best. (GP VI: 117; trans. H: 138) In fact, even though God concurs with the actualization of the actions of rational creatures, He cannot be considered to be the author of sin, for two different reasons. In the first place, while God is the cause of every perfection or positive aspect in created substances, the cause or creation of sin arises from the natural limitation of the creature, as it is represented in the divine intellect: when it is said that the creature depends upon God in so far as it exists and in so far as it acts, and even that conservation is a continual creation, this is true in that God gives ever to the creature and produces continually all that in it is positive, good and perfect, every perfect gift coming from the Father of lights. The imperfections, on the other hand, and the defects in operations spring from the original limitation that the creature could not but receive with the first beginning of its being, through the ideal reasons which restrict it. (GP VI: 121; trans. H: 141) In the second place, while God’s concurrence with the actions of the creature consists in the actualization of the successive states of the substances as they are included in their complete concepts considered as possible (A VI 4B; 1575; GP VI: 346),41 so that God does not decree to create sin but decrees to actualize a rational creature who is certainly going to sin (A VI 4B: 1524 and 1579), since that decree is subordinated to the more general decree of creating the best possible world which contains it (A VI: 1523; GP VI: 132; DPG: 117).42 Considering now Leibniz’s view concerning the ultimate reason for God’s permission of evil, following Augustine and Aquinas,43 Leibniz states that God allows evil in order to achieve


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some greater goods (Guhrauer: 412; GP VI: 377; A VI 4B: 1602), or, in other words, in order not to eliminate some goods that otherwise would not exist (GP VI: 444; A VI 4C: 2321). This thesis is directly linked with the final goals of God’s act of creation. Indeed, in creating, God seeks to actualize the maximal amount of perfection, so that “he has attained the utmost good possible, provided one reckon the metaphysical, physical and moral goods together” (GP VI: 264; trans. H: 279). Now, since God is not only the architect of the material world but also the king of the spiritual world (A VI 4B: 1584–5; GP VI: 621–2), He has some preference for His rational creatures over the rest, so He intends to produce the greatest amount of happiness or pleasure for those creatures (A VI 4B: 1537 and 1586). Nevertheless, given that there seems to be an opposition between the different kinds of goods, it is necessary to make room for some evils – of each different kind – in order to achieve the most perfect combination overall. As Leibniz points out: There is a certain opposition between physical and moral goodness. It is necessary to take into consideration both of them, besides a vast number of moral goods. Hence, in trying to produce the greatest possible of both [kinds], this has been achieved allowing some moral evil and some physical evil. (Grua II: 492)44 In other words, the best possible world cannot be actualized without allowing some evils, such as the sin and the freely deserved damnation of some rational creatures (A VI 4C: 2234). Unfortunately, Leibniz does not explain why there is an opposition between the different kinds of goods.45 He simply limits himself to affirm that we know this by experience (ex eventu), because the actual world includes those evils and because God can only do what is best (A VI 3: 146; GP VI: 35). Indeed, if the actual world, with the evils it contains, were not the best of all possible worlds, God would have not had any sufficient reason to choose it among the possible worlds, and therefore to create it (GP VI: 364). In conclusion, for Leibniz, the perfection of the world is greater with – and because of – the permission of evil than it would have been without this permission: “since God chooses the best possible, one cannot tax him with any limitation of his perfections; and in the universe not only does the good exceed the evil, but also the evil serves to augment the good” (GP VI: 247; trans. H: 263). Finally, Leibniz seems also to have theological reasons to affirm that evil contributes to the perfection of the universe, which concerns the classical Christian idea of the “fortunate fall.” Leibniz claims in several places – on occasions even citing the famous “Oh, felix culpa!” of the Easter proclamation (GP VI: 108 and 377) – that there is a connection between the permission of original sin and the reason for Christ’s Incarnation, so that the universe would have been less perfect without sin (A VI 4C: 2312 and 2359).46 Indeed, Leibniz affirms explicitly in his Causa Dei that the Incarnation of the Son of God, head of all creation, was the main reason for God choosing this world among the other possible (GP VI: 446). Christ’s Incarnation is, then, the ultimate reason for the permission of evil: God has had infinite concurrent reasons to consider at the moment He judged that this universe was worthy of His election. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the main reason was that, in the perfect representation of this possible world in the idea in the divine intellect, together with the fall of man was also surely the Incarnation of the Son of God. (Grua I: 343)


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Leibniz’s theodicy is undoubtedly a project fully committed to providing a metaphysical grounding for the defense of Christian theism. Nevertheless, given its metaphysical principles and assumptions, it seems to take the form of system oriented toward the justification of the existence of evil, rather than toward the justification of God’s perfection.

Notes 1 This chapter is an output of the project “The Problem of Evil: From Leibniz to Analytic Philosophy of Religion” (FFI2017-84559-P: Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad, Gobierno de España). 2 On this identification see Korsmeyer 1977. 3 This doesn’t mean that, at least implicitly, Leibniz’s Theodicy does not contain a theistic reply to the problem of natural evil. See, for instance, Strickland (2017). 4 On the theological context of Leibniz’s Theodicy see Murray 2002 and Rösler 2011. 5 Abbreviations: A, Akademie (ed.), Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe (Leibniz 1923–); Grua, Textes inédits d’apres les manuscrites de la bibliothèque provinciale de Hannover (Leibniz 1948); H, Huggard (trans.), Theodicy (Leibniz 1951); Couturat, Opuscules et fragments inédits de Leibniz. Extraits des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque royale de Hanovre (1961); GP, Gerhardt (ed.), Die Philosophischen Schriften (Leibniz 1965); Guhrauer, Deutsche Schriften (Leibniz 1966); GM, Gerhardt (ed.), Die Mathematischen Schriften (Leibniz 1971); CP, Confessio philosophi. Papers Concerning the Problem of Evil, 1671–1678 (Leibniz 2005); DPG, Dissertation on Predestination and Grace (Leibniz 2011). 6 Although it never completely disappears, and one can find references to it in later works. See, for instance, Grua II, 492, GP VI, 109 and 434. 7 Augustinus, De genesi ad litteram imperfectus liber (1865: 229). 8 See, for instance, A VI 1: 485 and 537–38; A VI 3: 146; GP VII: 306–7; Grua: 492; GP VI: 109 and 434; GM III: 574. 9 As Belaval 1976: 102 states, “taken apart, evil and sin are realities, such as dissonance; put in the ensemble of creation, they are not mere appearances, but they appear in their true role: that of increasing the harmony of the best of all possible worlds.” Even though Rateau 2008: 645 has outlined the equivocal sense of “appear” in this sentence, its meaning remains true. 10 On the evolution of Leibniz’s strategy on the problem of evil see Sleigh 2001. 11 See also A VI 4B: 1577 and A VI 4C: 2358. Where I don’t indicate otherwise, translations are my own. 12 See Latzer 1993. 13 Leibniz acquired a copy of the Phosphorus in February of 1663, and although he rejected its doctrines at first (see AVI 1, 496) its influence is clear in later years. 14 See Lubin (1605: 5, 9 and 211–12). 15 See, for instance, A VI 4A: 158 and 625; Grua I: 364; Guhrauer II: 401 and 411. 16 Augustinus, Enchiridion IV, 12, 2–9 (1969: 54). 17 Summa Theologiae I, q. 48, a. 3. 18 See Lubin 1605: 6 and 209. 19 For a more complete account of the influence of Lubin in Leibniz’s conception of evil, see Echavarría 2011b, 91–97 and Newlands 2014. For Leibniz’s use of the terms “privation” and “negation” in relation to evil, see Fernández Pérez 1995. 20 It is worth noting, however, that King uses the terminology of “evil of imperfection,” “natural evil,” and “moral evil” (King 1704: 46). Grua 1953: 354, followed by Rateau 2008: 579, points to Tommaso Campanella’s Atheismus thriumphatus as the source of this distinction. This is highly unlikely, both because Leibniz only had an indirect knowledge of Campanella’s work (see Grua II: 507–8, note 480), and because Campanella does not distinguish between three kinds of evil but between three modes of existence of evil in physical, metaphysical, and moral entities (Campanella 1631: 32). 21 See, for instance, Russell 1992: 198 and Broad 1975: 159–60. 22 See, for instance, Latzer 1994 and Antognazza 2014. 23 Latzer 1994. 24 See also A VI 3: 122; A II 1: 298–9; A VI 4B: 1533; Grua I: 396–7; GP VII: 305 and GP VI: 440. 25 For a complete account of how the divine intellect constitutes the possible individuals and worlds, see Nachtomy 2007: 9–50. 26 See also GP VI: 440.


Agustín Echavarría 27 The idea begins to take form in the notes Leibniz introduces in his Confessio philosophi, as a reply to Steno’s objections (A VI 3: 124). 28 See also GP III: 558 and 573. 29 See also A VI 4B: 1352, 1446, 1453 and 2577; Grua I: 396 and II 493. 30 On this regard, see Blumenfeld 1973 and Shields 1986. 31 See also A VI 4C: 2232; A VI 4B: 1635. 32 This is a constant claim from Leibniz’s earlier writings to the more mature ones. See, for instance, A VI 1: 544; A II 1: 186; A VI 3: 124; A VI 4B: 1362, 1383 and 1541. 33 Nevertheless, Leibniz reaches this conclusion after some hesitations on whether rooting the first decree on God’s nature or on His will. See A VI 4B: 1447 and 1455. 34 This relation is highlighted by Des Boses in his preface on the Latin edition of the Essays of Theodicy. On the influence of Spanish Jesuits, like Diego Granado, Diego Ruiz de Montoya, and Antonio Pérez, on Leibniz’s concept of moral necessity, see Knebel 1991 and 1992, Ramelow 1997, and Murray 2004 and 2014. 35 Augustininus, Enchiridion VIII, 27, 53–4 (1969: 64). 36 On the evolution of Leibniz’s concept of God’s permissive will, see Echavarría 2011a. 37 On Leibniz’s early account of the concept of permission see Echavarría 2006. 38 See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q.19, a. 6, ad 1; John Duns Scotus, In I Sent., I, dist. 46, q. 1. 39 Damascenus, De fide orthodoxa 1864: 968–9. 40 For Leibniz’s transformation of the distinction between antecedent and consequent will, see Echavarría 2014. 41 On Leibniz’s concept of divine concurrence see Lee 2004, McDonough 2007 Whipple 2010, and Schmaltz 2014. 42 For a more detailed account of this see Echavarría 2017. 43 Augustininus, Enchiridion III, 11, 29–345 (1969, 53);Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 2, a. 3, ad 1. 44 Brown 1988, Blumenfeld 1994, and Rutherford 1995: 51 maintain that, for Leibniz, the greatest harmony and metaphysical perfection of the universe coincide with the maximal happiness and virtue of rational creatures, while Wilson 1983 thinks that happiness and virtue are subordinated to the order and regularity of the universe. Strickland 2006: 143 thinks that the metaphysical perfection of the universe is not compatible with the maximal moral and physical perfection. Finally, Rescher (1979: 156–7) thinks that Leibniz never reached an appropriate balance between moral and metaphysical perfection. 45 See Strickland 2006, 147. 46 Some scholars like Jalabert 1985 and Jolley 2014 have pointed out that Leibniz’s theodicy is not as Christocentric as Malebranche’s. Even if this is true, Leibniz’s allusions to the Incarnation as the ultimate reason form the permission of evil are constant.

References Antognazza, M.R. (2014) “Metaphysical Evil Revisited,” in L.M. Jorgensen and S. Newlands (eds.) New Essays on Leibniz’s Theodicy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 112–34. Augustinus (1865) De genesi ad litteram imperfectus liber, ed. J.-P. Migne, Paris: Garnier. Augustinus (1969) Enchiridion, ed. M. Evans, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 46, Brepols: Turnhout. Belaval, I. (1976) Études leibniziennes, Paris: Gallimard. Blumenfeld, D. (1973) “Leibniz’s Theory of the Striving Possibles,” Studia Leibnitiana 5(2): 163–77. Blumenfeld, D. (1994) “Perfection and Happiness in the Best Possible World,” in N. Jolley (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Leibniz, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 382–410. Broad, D. (1975) Leibniz. An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Brown, G. (1988) “Leibniz’s Theodicy and the Confluence of Worldly Goods,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 26(4): 571–91. Brown, G. (1994) “Compossibility, Harmony, and Perfection in Leibniz,” in R.S. Woolhouse (ed.) Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Critical Assessments, vol. II, London: Routledge, 261–87. Calvin, J. (1960) Institution de la religion Chrestienne, ed. J.-D. Benoit, Paris: Vrin. Campanella, T. (1631) Atheismus triumphatus seu reduction ad religionem per scientiarum veritates, Rome: Zannetti. Damascenus, J. (1864) De Fide Orthodoxa, ed. J.-P. Migne, Paris, Garnier.


Leibniz on evil Echavarría, A. (2006) “Harmony, Dissonance and the Permission of Evil in the Early Writings of Leibniz,” in H. Breger, J. Herbst, and S. Erdner (eds.) VIII. Internationaler Leibniz-Kongress. Einheit in der Vielheit, Hannover: Hartmann, 218–25. Echavarría, A. (2011a) “Leibniz’s Concept of God’s Permissive Will,” in P. Rateau (ed.), Lectures et interprétations des Essais de théodicée de G. W. Leibniz, Studia Leibnitiana, Sonderheft 40, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 191–209. Echavarría, A. (2011b) Metafísica leibniziana de la permisión del mal, Pamplona: Eunsa. Echavarría, A. (2014) “Leibniz’s Dilemma on Predestination,” in L.M. Jorgensen and S. Newlands (eds.) New Essays on Leibniz’s Theodicy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 172–96. Echavarría, A. (2017) “Leibniz on the Efficacy and the Economy of Divine Grace,” in L. Strickland, E. Vynckier, and J. Weckend (eds.) Tercentenary Essays on the Philosophy and Science of Leibniz, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 279–300. Fernández Pérez, A. M. (1995) “Relación entre los conceptos de privación y negación y el mal metafísico en la filosofía de G. W. Leibniz,” Agora 14(1): 157–64. Grua, G. (1953), Jurisprudence universelle et Théodicée selon Leibniz, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Jalabert, J. (1985) Le Dieu de Leibniz, New York and London: Garland. Jolley, N. (2014) “Is Leibniz’s Theodicy a Variation on a Theme by Malebranche?” in L.M. Jorgensen and S. Newlands (eds.) New Essays on Leibniz’s Theodicy, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 55–70. King, (1704) W. De origine mali, Bremen. Knebel, S. K. (1991 and 1992) “Necessitas moralis ad optimum,” Studia leibnitiana 23(1) and 24(2): 3–24 and 182–215. Korsmeyer, C. (1977) “Is Pangloss Leibniz?” Philosophy and Literature 1(2): 201–8. Latzer, M. (1993) “The Nature of Evil: Leibniz and his Medieval Background,” The Modern Schoolman 66: 59–69. Latzer, M. (1994) “Leibniz’s Conception of Metaphysical Evil,” Journal of the History of Ideas 55(1): 1–15. Lee, S. (2004) “Leibniz on Divine Concurrence,” Philosophical Review 113(2): 203–48. Leibniz, G.W. (1923–) Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe, ed. Prussian [now German] Academy of Sciences, Berlin: Akademie. Leibniz, G.W. (1948) Textes inédits d’apres les manuscrites de la bibliothèque provinciale de Hannover, ed. G. Grua, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Leibniz, G.W. (1951) Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil, trans. E. Huggard, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Leibniz, G.W. (1961) Opuscules et fragments inédits de Leibniz. Extraits des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque royale de Hanovre, ed. L. Couturat; repr. Hildesheim: Georg Olms. Leibniz, G.W. (1965) Die Philosophischen Schriften, ed. C. J. Gerhardt, Berlin, Weidmann, 1875–1890; repr. Hildesheim: Georg Olms. Leibniz, G.W. (1966) Deutsche Schriften, ed. G. E. Guhrauer; repr. Hildesheim: Georg Olms. Leibniz, G.W. (1971) Die Mathematischen Schriften, ed. C. J. Gerhardt, Berlin-Halle: Weidmann, 1849–1863; repr. Hildesheim: Georg Olms. Leibniz, G.W. (2005) Confessio philosophi. Papers Concerning the Problem of Evil, 1671–1678, ed. and trans. R. C. Sleigh, New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press. Leibniz, G.W. (2011) Dissertation on Predestination and Grace, trans. M.J. Murray, New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press. Lubinus, E. (1605) Phosphorus, de prima causa et origine mali, Rostock. McDonough, J. K. (2007) “Leibniz: Creation and Conservation and Concurrence,” The Leibniz Review 17: 31–60. Mormino, G. (2005) Determinismo e utilitarismo nella teodicea di Leibniz, Milan: FrancoAngelli. Murray, M. J. (2002) “Leibniz’s Proposal for Theological Reconciliation among the Protestants,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 76(4): 623–46. Murray, M. J. (2004) “Pre-Leibnizian Moral Necessity,” The Leibniz Review 24: 1–28. Murray, M. J. (2014) “Vindicatio Dei: Evil as a Result of God’s Free Choice of the Best,” in L.M. Jorgensen and S. Newlands (eds.) New Essays on Leibniz’s Theodicy, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 153–71. Nachtomy, O. (2007) Possibility, Agency and Individuality in Leibniz’s Metaphysics, Dordrecht: Springer. Newlands, S. (2014) “Leibniz on Privations, Limitations, and the Metaphysics of Evil,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 52: 281–308.


Agustín Echavarría Ramelow, T. (1997) Gott, Freiheit, Weltenwahl, Der Ursprung des Begriffes der besten aller möglichen Welten in der Metaphysik der Willensfreiheit zwischen Antonio Perez S.J. (1599–1649) und G. W. Leibniz (1646–1716), Leiden-New York-Köln: Brill. Rateau, P. (2008) La question du mal chez Leibniz, Paris: Honoré Champion. Rescher, N. (1979) Leibniz: An Introduction to his Philosophy, Blackwell: Oxford. Rösler, C. (2011) “L’influence sur la Théodicée du negotium irenicum (1697–1706) entrepris par G. W. Leibniz et D. E. Jablonski,” in P. Rateau (ed.), Lectures et interprétations des Essais de théodicée de G. W. Leibniz, Studia Leibnitiana, Sonderheft 40, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 285–306. Russell, B. (1992) The Philosophy of Leibniz, London: Routledge. Rutherford, D. (1995) Leibniz and the Rational Order of Nature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Schmaltz, T. (2014) “Moral Evil and Divine Concurrence in the Theodicy,” in L.M. Jorgensen and S. Newlands (eds.) New Essays on Leibniz’s Theodicy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 135–52. Shields, Ch. J. (1986) “Leibniz’s Doctrine of the Striving Possibles,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 42(3): 343–57. Sleigh, R. (1994) “Leibniz on Divine Foreknowledge,” Faith and Philosophy 11(4): 547–71. Sleigh, R. (2001) “Remarks on Leibniz’s Treatment of the Problem of Evil,” in E.J. Kremer and M.J. Latzer (eds.) The Problem of Evil in Early Modern Philosophy, Toronto, Buffalo, NY, and London: University of Toronto Press, 165–79. Strickland, L. (2006) Leibniz Reinterpreted, London: Continuum. Strickland, L. (2017) “How Leibniz Would Have Responded to the Lisbon Earthquake,” in L. Strickland, E. Vynckier and J. Weckend (eds.) Tercentenary Essays on the Philosophy and Science of Leibniz, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 257–78. Whipple, J. (2010) “Leibniz on Divine Concurrence,” Philosophy Compass 5: 865–79. Wilson, C. (1983) “Leibnizian Optimism,” The Journal of Philosophy 80(11): 765–83.



Rousseau’s interest in evil was – like his interest in most everything – practical rather than metaphysical. He wanted to understand where evil came from in order to understand how it could be overcome. He has little to offer to those interested in many of the formal questions that predominate in the academic literature on evil. He has little to contribute, for example, to those interested in distinguishing conceptually between evil and those lesser ills which might be described as bad or wrong but not as evil. He likewise was not preoccupied with identifying the necessary and/or sufficient conditions for evil action or evil character. Rousseau invoked evil (le mal) in its broad sense, and was little inclined to engage in the kind of specific questions of language that drive much of the contemporary philosophical inquiry into evil. Indeed, it was philosophers’ affinity for these kinds of questions that moved Rousseau to castigate philosophers for their preoccupation with “metaphysical quibbles and subtleties” (R, i:1018; viii:23).1 Rousseau vowed instead to filter his inquiries through the lens of happiness. And when he finally agreed to write about moral and political questions – at the urging of his friend Denis Diderot and against his own professed better judgment – he did so on the grounds that he had finally encountered a question of urgent relevance to the problem of human happiness: Here is one of the greatest and finest questions ever debated. This discourse is not concerned with those metaphysical subtleties that have prevailed in all parts of literature and from which the announcements of academic competitions are not always exempt; rather, it is concerned with one of those truths that pertain to human happiness. (DAS, iii:6; ii:3) The question to which Rousseau was responding – “Has the rise of the arts and sciences contributed to the purification of morals?” – had been proposed by the Dijon Academy as an invitation to compete for a prize. Upon seeing the question, Rousseau claimed to have had a quasi-religious epiphany. This epiphany was the basis for what Rousseau would later call his “system,” and the epiphany was, in a fundamental sense, about the origin of evil. Here is how Rousseau described it in a letter to Malesherbes:


Jason Neidleman

Oh Sir, if I had ever been able to write a quarter of what I saw and felt under that tree, how clearly I would have made all the contradictions of the social system seen, with what strength I would have exposed all the abuses of our institutions, with what simplicity I would have demonstrated that man is naturally good and that it is from these institutions alone that men become wicked [méchant]. (i:1135–6; v:575) This was what Rousseau came to call his “great principle” or his “fundamental principle” – that “nature made man happy and good but society depraves him and makes him miserable” (D i:934; i:213).2 Rousseau’s position was a radical departure from existing theories on the subject, which maintained that human nature was at best mixed if not tending toward what Thomas Hobbes called “nasty,” and that society was required to restrain these dangerous inclinations. On the contrary, Rousseau asserted, the origin of evil lies not in nature (or, on the Christian account, in the Fall) but in society. In a letter to Christophe de Beaumont, the archbishop of Paris, Rousseau agreed with the archbishop that humanity was “in the hands of the Devil,” but he disagreed about how we “fell into them” (iv:940; ix:31). Indeed, it could be argued quite plausibly that the primary purpose of Rousseau’s moral and political philosophy was to describe precisely how humanity’s corruption occurred, and, in so doing, to demonstrate that the predominant political and moral philosophies of his time were wrong insofar as they were based on the premise that human beings were in any way evil by nature. This error had been made – most prominently by Hobbes – because previous writers on the subject had ascribed to human beings in the state of nature characteristics that could only have emerged in society. Imagining themselves to have described human nature, these writers had actually described how people with traits born only in society would behave without the constraints of society.3 So Rousseau had a story to tell about evil. It was not an etymological story, neither was it a metaphysical or linguistic analysis. It was something closer to a historical anthropology or, perhaps most accurately, a genealogy. It was a story about the origin of evil, intended ultimately to illustrate for people living in corrupt societies a time in which evil had not yet come into existence. Rousseau’s genealogy of evil had two purposes: first, to demonstrate that evil is not a constitutive element of human nature; and, second, to suggest the possibility of evading or transcending the evil that had become so pervasive in modern societies. Evil, Rousseau argued, is not inherent in the world but rather originates in us, which in turn gives us the power to overcome it. If evil is not inherent in Creation, it followed for Rousseau that evil could not be the responsibility of the Creator (about whom more below); evil originated later, after human beings made the fateful decision to leave their natural state. The responsibility for evil lies with humanity and humanity alone, and – what was perhaps most important for Rousseau – evil has a history that can be traced. It is a history that can reveal an alternative to the corruption that is currently so prevalent, a history that can show us a time when we were not yet evil. It is a history that can point the way toward a future in which we renounce evil in favor of good.

Rousseau’s theodicy It is helpful to situate Rousseau’s account of evil within the context of the debates over theodicy from which it emerged. How is it, many began to ask in the early eighteenth century, that a good and all-powerful God could permit evil to occur? Those who had previously reflected on this question, Gottfried Leibniz and Alexander Pope to take two prominent examples, had argued that there was no evil in the world or that evil was merely apparent. On this view, evil 98

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was part of a larger order that was the best of all worlds, such that anything in the world could be justified as necessary to make that world as it is.4 In order to make this case, they had recourse to various strategies for redescribing ills as good. Rousseau shared these thinkers’ concern to absolve the Creator of responsibility for evil, but, unlike them, he did not resort to the implausible claim – famously ridiculed by Voltaire in Candide – that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Rousseau’s “great principle” gave him room to acknowledge the evil in the world without either reinterpreting it as good or making God culpable for it. Rousseau’s fundamental principle absolved God of responsibility for originating evil, but it does not account for why God allowed evil to enter into Creation. In a letter to Franquières, written in 1769, Rousseau took up the question of theodicy: How could evil exist if everything is “the work of an intelligent, powerful, and beneficent being?” (iv:1140; viii:265) Interestingly, he initially claims – rather implausibly given that he had published both Discourses and Emile by that point – that he had not thought much about the question. Though he could not say exactly why he had neglected this question, he suspected that it had been for one of two reasons. Either he had not adequately understood the extent of the problem, or the problem itself is much less significant than it was generally assumed to be. Having made the decision to deal with the question directly, he first considered denying the existence of evil: But when I suffer, is this not an evil? When I die, is this not an evil? Not so fast: I am subject to death, because I received life. . . . When I looked closely at all that, I found, perhaps I proved, that the sentiment of death and that of pain is almost nil in the order of nature. (LF, iv:1141; viii:265–6) Here Rousseau speaks of what might be called natural or physical evil, and he quite plainly dismisses it, not on the grounds that the God bears no responsibility for it but rather on the grounds that, evaluated in context, it is not in fact evil at all. Moral evil, however, is something else. Moral evil – evil perpetrated by human beings upon one another – Rousseau wanted neither to deny nor to negate. But God bears no responsibility for moral evil either, Rousseau decides, not this time because it is not in fact evil – as Leibniz and Pope had maintained – but because it is exclusively a “work of man” and has nothing to do with God. And, yet, as we have already said, even if God is not responsible for the creation of evil, God is responsible for the creation of human beings and so, it could be argued, must bear at least some indirect responsibility for the presence of evil in the world. God made people with a capacity for evil, this argument goes, and could have presumably made them otherwise. But this too is not the case, Rousseau insists. And here we come to the principle upon which Rousseau’s theodicy turns: to be human is to be free. There is nothing more fundamental to a dignified human existence: “To renounce one’s freedom is to renounce one’s status as a man” (SC, iii:356; iv:135). Freedom is a constituent quality of a human being, and freedom must include the possibility of choosing to do ill; otherwise it could not meaningfully be said to include the possibility of doing good. As Mark Cladis has put it, “morality and moral evil . . . require the same condition: freedom” (1995, 189). God had no choice but to create us with the capacity for evil, or else we would lack the capacity for the moral agency that is the very essence of our humanity. Freedom, the quality that redeems this world for human beings, cannot exist except in coexistence with the possibility for evil. Our freedom to choose the good is meaningless unless we are equally free to choose its opposite. In the Letter to Beaumont, Rousseau wrote that the evil we experience is not an “absolute evil” because, “far from directly combatting the good, it contributes along with it to universal harmony” (iv:955; ix:43). Here Rousseau’s view touches the 99

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position taken by Leibniz and Pope. There are not two separate forces – good and evil – there is rather a universal order into which everything fits. This makes existence itself good, even if evil is woven into it. Evil has some role to play in the larger order, for without it there could be no good. So, while Rousseau did not subscribe to the Leibnizian view that evil does not exist, he did deny the existence of what he here calls absolute evil, a notion that would be incompatible with belief in the fundamental goodness of existence. Absolute evil would have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Since all things have their place in the harmony of Creation, produced by the Will that directs everything, and since absolute evil could have no place in such an order, it follows for Rousseau that there can be no such thing as absolute evil.

Rousseau’s conception of evil Up to this point, we have focused on two aspects of Rousseau’s account of evil: (1) evil emerges as a byproduct of a choice made by human beings (i.e., to enter into society) and is not therefore inherent in Creation itself; and (2) once this choice has been made, the freedom to act morally necessarily requires the possibility of an equal and opposite option to act against morality. We have not yet specified what it is that qualifies an action, occurrence, or individual as evil. What, to state the question plainly, did evil mean in Rousseau’s philosophical vocabulary? What did he use the term evil (le mal) to denote? In this regard, it is useful to begin by drawing three distinctions, the first two of which can be found in Rousseau’s work and a third that comes out of the contemporary scholarship on evil.

Physical and moral evil In the Letter to Voltaire, Rousseau’s most sustained treatment of evil, he defended and extended the project of the Discourse on Inequality, which he characterized as showing his audience “how they caused their miseries upon themselves, and consequently how they might avoid them” (LV, iv:1061; iii:109). One of the problems with this claim is that, even if it applies to the ills that human beings perpetuate upon one another (moral evil), it seems impossible to claim that it applies to the ills that arise from nature alone (physical evil). Nevertheless, Rousseau argues that physical evils, such as the earthquake at Lisbon – a seminal event in the history of theorizing about evil and the occasion for the work to which Rousseau is reacting in the Letter to Voltaire – do not seriously undermine his great principle: as for physical ills, if, as it seems to me, it is a contradiction, as it seems to me, they are inevitable in any system of which man is a part; and then the question is not at all why is man not perfectly happy, but why does he exist? Moreover I believe I have shown that with the exception of death, which is an evil almost solely because of the preparations which one makes preceding it, most of our physical ills are still our own work. (iv:1061; iii:109–10) Here Rousseau is applying to physical evil the argument that we witnessed him making with regard to moral evil in the previous section. Physical ills are an essential element of physical existence, Rousseau argues. Thus, in challenging the existence of physical evils we are challenging the very idea of existence itself. We cannot experience pleasure without knowing pain; we cannot know love without the possibility of heartbreak; and even death – which Rousseau concedes is not an ill of our own making – is an essential element of all physical life and is experienced as an evil mainly because of the weak and cowardly ways in which we dispose ourselves 100

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toward it. All in all, Rousseau argues, the physical ills to which nature subjects us are as nothing compared to the ills – both physical and moral – that we impose upon ourselves. Rousseau’s argument with respect to physical evil was threefold. First, the ills to which nature exposes us are minimal. Second, the extent to which we experience suffering from physical evil is mostly a consequence of our own actions. We have cultivated an unwarranted fear of death and a weakness in life that makes us feel sharply pains that were largely unknown to us in our natural state. And, third, physical existence itself is not possible without the concurrent possibility of physical evil. This latter claim is a variant of the argument Rousseau used to explain the existence of moral evil, which we reviewed in the previous section.

Particular and general evil General evil refers to existence itself, while particular evil refers to instances of evil suffered by particular individuals. In the Letter to Voltaire, Rousseau accused Voltaire of conflating the two and, in so doing, confusing optimists like Alexander Pope – with whom Rousseau here identifies – with those who would claim “everything is good.” The optimists’ position, Rousseau clarified, is not “everything is good”; it is, rather, “the whole is good” or “everything is good for the whole” (LV, iv:1068; iii:115). In order to understand this distinction it is necessary to distinguish particular evil from general evil. To return, Sir, to the system that you attack, I believe that one cannot examine it suitably without distinguishing carefully particular evil, whose existence no Philosopher has ever denied, from the general evil that the optimist denies. It is not a question of knowing whether each one of us suffers or not; but whether it be good that the universe exists, and whether our ills be inevitable in the constitution of the universe. (LV, iv:1068; iii:115) It would be ridiculous to deny that particular evils occur, but Rousseau argued that pessimists like Voltaire were wrong to take the existence of particular evils for proof of the existence of general evil. It would be wrong, in other words, to take the existence of particular evils as proof that there exists a general evil in the universe. On the contrary, Rousseau believed that the universe was characterized by a general order and that the particular evils perpetuated by human beings were subversions of that order.5 General evil, Rousseau has the Savoyard vicar argue, can only exist in the absence of order, and, he continued, “I see in the system of the world an unfailing order” (E, iv:588; xiii:443). On this matter, if not on everything else, Rousseau employed the vicar to express his own view.6

Broad and narrow evil The contemporary literature on evil distinguishes between a “narrow conception,” which is reserved only for the most inhuman and monstrous suffering that human beings perpetrate upon one another, and a “broad conception,” which encompasses all of the ills that we suffer rather than only those that are most extreme. Since Auschwitz, the literature on evil has been preoccupied with evil understood in the narrow sense, defined as, to take one representative example, intentional, unjustified suffering imposed by one person or group of people upon another person or group of people (Calder, 2013). This has raised a series of questions (discussed below), which have in turn raised concerns about the very idea of evil itself. As noted above, Rousseau employed evil in the broad sense, inclusive of all ills suffered by human beings, a usage 101

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that escapes many of the concerns about evil currently pushing it toward obsolescence. In this sense, a Rousseauean conception of evil could be useful in theorizing a revised, less theoretically problematic approach to evil, as I suggest at the end of this chapter. Rousseau, to summarize, used the concept of evil to encompass all of the ills suffered by human beings, including both those that are avoidable and those that are inherent byproducts of things that are otherwise good, such as existence and morality. There are essentially no physical evils, with the possible exception of death. For all intents and purposes evil did not exist in the state of nature and only came into being with the inception of society. This is because evil only comes into being as the necessary accompaniment of morality, which itself only emerges in society. Once in society, individuals acquire the capacity for moral action, and this capacity must necessarily carry with it the capacity to act against morality, that is, to act in opposition to that which morality demands. Most importantly, the source of moral evil is in human beings alone, which means that it can be overcome. The capacity to opt for evil is inherent in moral agency, but culpability for evil lies entirely in decisions – collective and individual – made by moral agents.

Rousseau’s genealogy of evil Once we know that evil arises not from nature but from human beings, we will next want to ask what it is that causes us to become evil or to commit evil acts. The general concept Rousseau used to account for this dynamic was amour propre, which is sometimes translated as vanity but is best understood as esteeming oneself based on the opinions of others. Rousseau contrasts amour propre with amour de soi, which refers to the benign desire shared by all living things to secure their authentic (self-originating) needs. As long as we allow ourselves to be guided by these authentic needs, we will be able to avoid evil. But, if we allow artificial needs to proliferate, we open a space into which wickedness may enter. Rousseau makes the point in replying to criticism of his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences: “It is believed I am much embarrassed by being asked to what point it is necessary to limit luxury. My sentiment is that there must be no luxury at all. Everything beyond physical necessity is a source of evil” (Final Reply, iii:95; ii:128).7 Evil is commonly defined as the imposition of unnecessary suffering. For Rousseau, the imposition of unnecessary suffering can itself be traced back to the development of unnecessary desire. So, broadly speaking, moral evil arises from a desire to distinguish oneself, to be recognized as richer, handsomer, cleverer, or more fashionable.8 This desire results in a variety of behaviors that qualify as evil by virtue of the fact that they subvert or subjugate the good of others to the good of the perpetrator(s). Rousseau famously said that the most general will is also the most just.9 It follows from this that those things that most subvert the general will are the most evil. Moral evil, then, can be understood as the willful subversion of the welfare of others to one’s own. As the vicar puts it, “the good man orders himself in relation to the whole, and the wicked one orders the whole in relation to himself” (E, iv:602; xiii:455).10 In the state of nature, evil had not yet manifested, as people, animated by amour de soi, secured their own good without compromising the good of others. At the other end of the spectrum, in Rousseau’s ideal republic of virtue (discussed later in this chapter), evil will be overcome, as citizens generalize and transform amour propre, such that, in pursuing their own good, they are simultaneously pursuing common good of their compatriots. But, in the in-between state we currently occupy, evil predominates, as inflamed amour propre inspires individuals to secure their own good at the expense of everyone else’s. In the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau set for himself the task of explaining how this sad state came to be: “Men are wicked; sad and continual experience spares the need for proof. 102

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However, man is naturally good; I believe I have demonstrated it. What then can have depraved him to this extent. . .?” (iii:202; iii:74). Rousseau’s answer was that, when human beings came into regular contact, they began to compare themselves to one another. This faculty of comparison enabled them to make relative judgments about their own worth and the worth of others. They measured themselves against what they perceived in others. On the positive side, this enabled moral agency, as individuals could for the first time judge their actions based on the effect of those actions on others. But it also enabled more dangerous comparisons, in which people esteemed themselves based on what distinguished them from others rather than on the basis what they held in common. This, in turn, led to a proliferation of needs, as people continually sought new ways of setting themselves apart. If we want to be happy, the Savoyard vicar tells us, we need only be “satisfied to be what we are.” The problem, alas, is that we are not satisfied, that we pursue “an imaginary well-being,” and in so doing we “give ourselves countless real ills” (E, iv:587–8; xiii:443). The most significant of the ills we inflict upon ourselves is the need for the approval of others. “The wicked man is wicked,” Rousseau writes in the Dialogues, “only because he needs others, because some don’t favor him enough and some put obstacles in his path. He can neither use them nor put them aside at will” (i:824; i:127). This inflamed form of amour propre (which Rousseau opposed to the benign form discussed below) eventuates in societies that put people into conflict with one another by making it necessary for them to do harm to others in order to secure their own good. The natural inclination to secure their own interest while doing the least harm to others is overwhelmed by: maxims . . . in which each man finds his profit in the misfortune of others. . . . There is perhaps no well-to-do man whose death is not secretly hoped for by avid heirs and of his own children; no Ship at Sea whose wreck would not be good news to some merchant; no firm that a debtor of bad faith would not wish to see burned along with all the papers it contains; no People that does not rejoice about the disasters of its neighbors” (DI, iii:202; iii:74–5). In society, we are alienated from our nature. This alienation creates the opening for evil, as we scramble to recapture the wholeness we once had and now want desperately to reclaim. In our desperation, we engage in behavior that can become so terribly misguided as to qualify as evil. In the Letter to Beaumont, Rousseau describes this as the “last stage” of corruption, in which “none finds his own good except in someone else’s ill,” conscience is stifled by baser passions, and people only want the public good when it coincides with their own (iv:937; ix:29). We can summarize Rousseau’s position as follows: 1 2 3

Morality requires the ordering of one’s particular will to the common good or general will; Evil actions are those that subvert the common good for the sake of a particular interest; The impulse to evil originates in a socially-constituted desire for distinction.

At this point we have Rousseau’s account of what evil is, where it comes from, and how it proliferates. The obvious next question is what, if anything, we might do to overcome it?

Overcoming evil In the Dialogues, Rousseau calls amour propre “the principle of all wickedness [méchanceté],” on the grounds that wickedness is possible only when one compares oneself to others (i:789–90; 103

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i:100). But amour propre need not always lead us to wickedness. Comparison is the basis for morality as well as wickedness, and, if we can cultivate amour propre from those things that unite us with our fellows rather than from the things that distinguish or differentiate us, we can transform the source of wickedness into its remedy. Amour propre, when directed only “in relation to ourselves,” is a source of evil, but, when extended to other individuals, amour propre can be a source of virtue. I have shown that the only passion born with man, namely love of self, is a passion in itself indifferent to good and evil; that it becomes good or bad only by accident and depending on the circumstances in which it develops. . . . Man is not a simple being. He is composed of two substances. . . . Once that is proved, the love of self is no longer a simple passion. But it has two principles, namely the intelligent being and the sensitive being, the well-being of which is not the same. The appetite of the sense conduces to the well-being of the body, and the love order to that of the soul. The latter love, developed and made active, bears the name of conscience. But Conscience develops and acts only with man’s understanding. . . . Conscience is therefore null in the man who has compared nothing and who has not seen his relationships. In that state, man knows only himself. He does not see his well-being as opposed to or consistent with that of anyone. He neither hates nor loves anything. Restricted to physical instinct alone, he is null, he is stupid. That is what I have shown in my Discourse on Inequality. (LB, iv:936; ix:28). This passage makes several important points with respect to the genealogy of evil. First, evil is not natural to man but emerges only in society. Second, the capacity for evil is coeval with the capacity for morality. The savage, while possessing an innocent goodness, is governed only by instinct and is “stupid,” as Rousseau puts it, with respect to good and evil. Third, the capacity for both moral good and evil emerges from the faculty of comparison, the very same faculty that accounts for amour propre. So, the task of civilized people is to find the remedy in the disease.11 Rousseau believed that, once in society, we become engaged in an ongoing battle for good and against evil. Our compensation for the decision to form societies lies in the chance we have to arrive at something beautiful and redemptive, but that something is premised on the same freedom that makes evil possible as well. The struggle to resist evil is therefore a permanent part of our existence. Rousseau gives us several models of how we might do so, all of which involve overcoming the divisiveness and fragmentation characteristic of modern society. Unfortunately, none of these models is wholly successful. Under ideal circumstances – the republic of virtue, a small country estate, or a solitary nature walk – we might transcend or escape evil for a time. But these moments are rare. More often, we will be compelled to settle for half measures, which merely divert us from evil deeds instead of moving us to eschew evil altogether.12 The arts and sciences are a good example. It would have been best, Rousseau argues in the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences and in the Letter to D’Alembert, if the arts and sciences had never been born, as they have a corrosive effect on public morality. Their effect is to cause reputation and talent to be prized over virtue and probity. Once the arts and sciences have been born, however, our best option is to tolerate them, not because they move people to do good but because they “occupy them with foolishness to turn them away from bad actions.” It is better, Rousseau writes, to “live with rogues than with brigands” (PN, ii:972; ii:196). Sometimes, lesser evils can save us from a greater one. This is why, for example, Rousseau argued in the Letter to D’Alembert that the theater – while bad for a good people – is good for a bad one. 104

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But, if we hope to do more than simply blunt the effects of moral corruption, if we hope, in other words, to overcome evil, we will need to redirect amour propre such that we come to esteem ourselves based on that which we have in common with our fellows rather than on that which distinguishes us. Patriotism, friendship, and a love of order, God, and justice must supplant the pernicious forms of amour propre that cause us to subvert the interest of others in pursuit of our own. The impulse that produces evil cannot be erased; it must rather be rechanneled. It can either be rechanneled into frivolous amusements, such that evil is attenuated, or it can be rechanneled into a generalized love, such that evil is overcome. The vicar uses the example of religious enthusiasm to suggest how the passions might be rechanneled to overcome evil. Fanaticism, he argues, can be “sanguinary and cruel.” Our response, however must not be irreligion, as many of those who Rousseau disparaged as “philosophers” had argued. “If atheism does not cause the spilling of men’s blood, it is less from love of peace than from indifference to the good.” This is a state of mind that the vicar characterizes as akin to the “tranquility of the state under despotism.” It risks being “more destructive than war itself” (E, iv:632–3; xiii:479–80). In order to overcome evil, passion should not be repressed but rather redirected. The natural religion espoused by the vicar prevents religious enthusiasm from becoming destructive of the social bond by rechanneling it into a love of the whole. Rousseau makes a similar case with respect to love of the patria, which must be generalized until it encompasses the entirety of the social body but not so much that it becomes dissolute and can no longer motivate virtuous action. It should be clear by now that the path to redemption lies less in reason than in sentiment. The self-love that is the source of evil cannot be simply repressed; it must rather be rechanneled into a noble love of the whole. In the Letter to Voltaire, Rousseau claimed to have overcome the temptation to see the world as constitutively evil. “You find only evil,” he wrote to Voltaire, while I “find that all is good” (LV, iv:1074; iii:120). Whatever the evils, Rousseau argued, our goods are greater. Philosophers forget this because they do not account for the “sweet sentiment of existence” (LV, iv:1063; iii:111). It is this sentiment that accounts for the fundamental goodness of existence. Likewise it is this sentiment – along with those that flow from it – that enable us to overcome evil, when we are able to overcome it. We do not overcome evil by the coolness of reason. Reason pushes us toward a posture of detachment; sentiment attaches us to God, Creation, and our fellow sentient beings. It is from sentiment, Rousseau maintains, that we develop a concern for the well-being of others, culminating – in a well-ordered society – in love of the patria, which Rousseau described as “a hundred times more ardent and delightful than that of a mistress” (PE, iii:255; iii:151). But, in order to stay in touch with the sentiment of existence, we must not allow ourselves to be consumed by the norms and manners of civilized society. A part of us must remain anchored in our past, in the prelapsarian era of our history, prior to the development of reason, inequality, and amour propre – prior, that is, to the emergence of the distinction between moral good and evil. If we can do this, we have a chance to reassemble the constituent elements of civilization, such that we might reclaim the harmony inherent in the state of nature which must now be constituted out of the crooked timber of modern societies.

Rousseau and our problem with evil There may no longer be any such thing as evil, at least not if some contemporary philosophers and neuroscientists have their way. The elements of evil that have brought it to the verge of banishment are its immateriality (which is the particular bête noire of the neuroscientists) and its totality (which worries philosophers). Here, we are speaking of what we might call metaphysical 105

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evil, understood as an immaterial, malevolent force. This understanding of evil, which I think it is fair to call the ordinary understanding, implies that individuals – when they act with malevolent disregard for the welfare of others – have somehow been overtaken by a metaphysical force. From the neuroscientists, we are offered evidence that evil is better understood as a physiological rather than a metaphysical phenomenon (Rosenbaum, 2011). And, from the philosophers, we are confronted with a litany of dangers that follow from construing evil as wholly monstrous and, therefore, wholly foreign to ordinary human interaction. Evil, they argue, is best understood as a social construct applied to behavior antecedently deemed to have transgressed conventional boundaries (Bernstein, 2002). When we construe evil as metaphysical, there is a perilous consolation with which we may be tempted to comfort ourselves, inasmuch as that construct allows us to distance ourselves from evil, to sequester it as something alien, an abnormality against which we are able to cast ourselves as “normal.” Hillel Steiner defines evil acts as “wrong acts that are pleasurable for their doers” (2002, 189). This restrictive use of evil limits it to only the most diabolical of actions. Steiner’s definition is what we referred to as the “narrow conception” of evil earlier, and it presents at least two difficulties. It justifies (1) complacency with respect to ourselves and (2) eliminationism with respect to adversaries. It accomplishes this by placing the phenomenon it is meant to name outside of the bounds of human comprehension. In fact, conveying inscrutability is part of the raison d’être of the narrow conception to of evil. If we are motivated by a desire to believe that our world is governed by reason, we will need a category for that which we could not otherwise assimilate to a rational universe. For that we create a box, a repository, to which we can then assign a label (evil) and use for anything that we cannot explain or (more dangerously, as Nietzsche emphasized) prefer not to understand. This conception of evil satisfies the desire to distance ourselves from that which we cannot comfortably comprehend and to preserve a sense that the world is ordered. It names that which is unassimilable. The existence of metaphysical evil exempts us from much.13 We no longer, for example, need to think about – much less actually address – what might be causing the behavior that we have decided to deal with instead by designating as “evil.” Indeed, labeling behavior as evil in the metaphysical sense acts as a substitute for thinking about it. And, perhaps more critically, the designation of evil allows the designator to distance herself from the various ways she may be implicated in the phenomenon at issue. Once evil has been characterized as monstrous, it becomes all too easy to imagine oneself as immunized from it by virtue of one’s “normal” or nondefective character. On the other hand, when deployed against an adversary, the narrow conception of evil conjures a moral imperative to respond with overwhelming force, in fact to destroy. This conception of evil creates an incentive to put more and more things into our box, because we want to justify a policy of violence and extermination, which is all that can be done about those things we have adjudged metaphysically evil. None of this is particularly Rousseauean. For Rousseau, evil was always very close to us. It was lurking in the background of every good thing we did. It came to the surface every time we acted deceptively, failed to act when circumstances demanded it, or privileged our own good to the common interest. Conversely, because Rousseau did not conceive of evil in the narrow, totalizing sense, there were no monsters in his moral universe, no one born inherently evil and no one beyond redemption. Evil can never be the exclusive or final verdict on a person’s character. No one can be dismissed as possessed by an alien or diabolical force, nor can anyone be described as inhuman or a monster. This is at odds with the way evil is most commonly invoked in contemporary public discourse and philosophy. We tend now to describe as evil only those who embody the very worst of humanity. This conception of evil allows whoever invokes it to distance herself from the phenomenon she is condemning. But this was not Rousseau’s 106

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conception. Rousseau’s account of evil disallows the complacency that accompanies detachment. The capacity for evil, on the Rousseauean account, is always lurking in all of us and emerges every time we subordinate the welfare of another to our own. That Rousseau’s account of evil escapes some of the problems associated with contemporary theorizations of evil is an advantage. Before concluding, however, we should also acknowledge one serious concern, not so much with Rousseau’s specific account of evil but rather with his broader attitude toward moral corruption. Rousseau, in his moral and political writings, tended to be extremely judgmental about corruption and vice. He was not particularly tolerant of human frailty and imperfection, leaning often toward an all or nothing approach, in which political life in particular must be totally pure or else irredeemable. Though it would require a different kind of essay, it is worth thinking about how demanding too much from the world might itself furnish a justification for evil. Fair or not, Rousseau’s political thought was deployed in favor of the Terror in France, an event now frequently invoked as a paradigmatic example of evil and one, it must be acknowledged, motivated in large part by a quest for purity. This is not the place to assess the Revolutionaries’ appropriation of Rousseau, but we might use the Terror as a reminder that evil can emerge equally from an overzealous pursuit of the common good as it can from the privileging of selfish interests. Rousseau had his guard up against the various ways in which personal ambition and political usurpation could produce evil consequences, but he was less attuned to the ways in which evil may result from the overzealous pursuit of its eradication, from a rigid insistence on moral purity and from a politics that demands the same.

Notes 1 References to Rousseau are, first, to Œuvres complètes Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1959–1996 and, second, to The Collected Writings of Rousseau, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1990–2009. I have used the following abbreviations: C = Confessions; D = Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques: Dialogues; DAS = Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, also referred to as the first Discourse; DI = Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, also referred to as the second Discourse; E = Emile; L = Essay on the Origin of Languages; LB = Letter to Beaumont; LF = Letter to Franquières, 15 January 1769; LM = Letters Written from the Mountain; LV = Letter to Voltaire, 18 August 1756; NH = Julie or the New Heloise; PE = Discourse on Political Economy; O = Observations by Jean-Jacques Rousseau of Geneva On the Reply Made to his Discourse; PN = Preface to Narcissus; R = Reveries of the Solitary Walker; SC = On the Social Contract. 2 See also LB, iv:935–6; ix:28 and E, iv:322; xiii:225. 3 They “spoke about savage man and they described Civil man.” (DI, iii:132; iii:19) 4 Prior to Rousseau, Neiman writes, there were only two options: either there was no such thing as evil or there was nothing to be done about it (2002, 42). 5 Cladis calls this “Enlightenment optimism,” which he distinguishes from Augustinian optimism. While Augustine held that creation is fundamentally good, Rousseau’s optimism, by virtue of locating sole responsibility for evil in the voluntary actions of human beings, maintains that “‘All will be good someday’ – that is, when even the human will shall be healed through education and other reformed social institutions” (1995, 194). For Augustine this kind of redemption could arrive only upon death. 6 In the Letter to Beaumont, Rousseau says that this is what the vicar has “explained best” (iv:941; ix:31–2). 7 “It cannot be said that it is an evil in itself to . . . carry an enameled box. But it is a great evil to attach some importance to such finery” (O, iii:51; iii:49). 8 Rousseau attributes evil to the drive for recognition and distinction. His account does not leave room for evil as a genetic defect or inborn psychological pathology. 9 In every society there is a general will composed of the interests associates hold in common, i.e., as citizens. Rousseau opposes this set of common interests to the private interest that an associate may have “as a man” (SC, iii:363; iv:140). In his political theory, Rousseau makes the general will the sole basis for the legitimate exercise of sovereign power. 10 Rousseau’s view presages Kant’s view that evil privileging self-interest over the moral law. Rousseau’s view is also like Kant’s in that evil is not reserved for only the worst sorts of actors or actions. Evil describes merely failing to do good.


Jason Neidleman 11 For a discussion of this idea and the many ways in which it recurs in Rousseau’s corpus, see Chapter 5 of Starobinski (1993). 12 One exception could be the tightly circumscribed education described in Emile, which is designed to insulate the pupil, the eponymous Emile, from social influences that might otherwise corrupt him.This education will be “purely negative.” In consists “not at all in teaching virtue or truth but in securing the heart from vice and the mind from error.” (E iv:323; xiii:226) Emile’s amour propre will be developed very deliberately, on the basis of that which he has in common with his fellow human beings rather than on the basis of that which distinguishes him. 13 In Radical Evil, Bernstein writes, “we must not see evil as a fixed ontological feature of the human condition,” because that would mean that there is nothing to be done about it (2002, 229).

References Bernstein, R.J. 2002. Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation. Cambridge: Polity Press. Calder, T. 2013. “The Concept of Evil.” Accessed November 21, 2016. concept-evil. Cladis, M.S. 1995. “Tragedy and Theodicy: A Meditation on Rousseau and Moral Evil.” The Journal of Religion 75(2): 181–99. Neiman, S. 2002. Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Rosenbaum, R. 2011. “Does Evil Exist? Neuroscientists Say No.” Accessed March 15, 2016. www.slate. com/articles/health_and_science/the_spectator/2011/09/does_evil_exist_neuroscientists_say_no_. html. Rousseau, J-J. 1959. The Collected Writings of Rousseau. Edited by Roger Masters and Christopher Kelly. 14 vols. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England. Rousseau, J-J. 1959 Œuvres complètes. 5 vols. Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Starobinski, J. 1993. Blessings in Disguise; Or, The Morality of Evil. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge: Polity Press. Steiner, H. 2002. “Calibrating Evil.” Monist 85(2): 183–93.


8 KANT The evil in all of us Matthé Scholten

In contemporary English, we commonly distinguish between merely bad or wrong actions on the one hand and evil actions on the other, where the attribute “evil” is understood to apply only to the worst kind of wrongdoing and the worst kind of wrongdoers. In keeping with this distinction, the prototypes of evil that readily come to mind are the serial killer, the mass murderer, the terrorist, the child molester, and the rapist. Contemporary accounts of evil try to capture the distinction between wrong and evil present in ordinary language by specifying additional conditions that make an “ordinary” wrong action evil: evil actions are morally wrong actions that are extremely wrong, incomprehensible, or performed from particularly base motives. On these accounts, evil is essentially “wrongdoing plus.” Evil may seem such a fascinating topic partly because of its extremity. For those who are fascinated by the topic for this reason, reading Kant may turn out to be a disappointment. Since Kant offers us an analysis not only of evil but also of “radical” evil, many have thought that his theory of evil deals with the most extreme forms of wrongdoing. This is a serious misunderstanding. By means of the adjective “radical,” Kant refers to the source of evil (in Latin, radix means “root”) rather than to the most extreme forms of evil. Moreover, the German word böse (evil) did not yet have any connotation of extremity in Kant’s time. Perhaps surprisingly to present-day readers, Kant uses the terms “morally evil” and “morally wrong” synonymously and for him the oppositional pair of good (gut) and evil (böse) fulfills the role that the oppositional pair of morally right and morally wrong does for us today. For Kant, evil is thus nothing beyond “ordinary” moral wrongdoing.1 Kant’s most influential and well-known treatment of the topic is no doubt his discussion of radical evil in the first part of his 1793 Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. This text was first published in 1792 as a separate essay in the Berlinische Monatschrift and immediately aroused great controversy. In a famous letter to Herder, Goethe complained that Kant had “disgracefully slobbered on his philosopher’s cloak with the shameful stain of radical evil, after it had taken him a life time to cleanse it from many a wicked prejudice, so that even Christians would be enticed to kiss its hem” (Goethe 1964: 536:5). I will try to show that Kant did not submit to Christian dogmatism by the end of his career and that he developed an entirely secular account of evil, remaining true to his Enlightenment ideals. Kant’s interest in evil was first aroused by public discussions in the wake of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Where many understood the earthquake as a punishment of God for the sins of 109

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modern life, Kant wrote three essays in the Köningsberger weekly paper in which he attempted to explain the occurrence of the earthquake as a result of the movement of subterranean gasses. In his 1791 essay On the Miscarriage of All Philosophical Trials in Theodicy, he approaches this topic from the other side, explaining why all theoretical attempts to reconcile human suffering in this world with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and morally perfect good are doomed to fail. Kant also dared to give a secular interpretation of the Bible’s representation of evil. In his 1786 essay Conjectural Beginning of Human History, he ventures to go on what he calls a “pleasure trip” through the biblical book Genesis, providing us with a philosophical interpretation of the Fall in Rousseauean spirit. In this chapter, I will focus on Kant’s systematic account of evil in his major works on moral philosophy. I start by reconstructing Kant’s conception of evil as a property of actions and persons and then discuss his account of radical evil in the Religion.

Kant’s criticism of the distinction between natural and moral evil Kant’s most elaborate attempt to define good and evil can be found in the second chapter of the analytic of pure practical reason of the Critique of Practical Reason (KpV 5: 57–71).2 The chapter can be seen as a criticism of an influential distinction regarding evil that goes back at least to Augustine. This is the distinction between moral evil (malum morale) and natural evil (malum physicum). According to this distinction, moral evil comprises morally wrong actions and vicious character traits as well as bad events and states of affairs that result from intentional or negligent actions of human agents. Natural evil, by contrast, comprises bad events and states of affairs that do not result from intentional or negligent actions of human agents. Whereas earthquakes, hurricanes, diseases, and epidemics provide notable examples of natural evil, moral evil is exemplified by actions such as murder, theft, and deceit. Although natural evils are explicitly defined as not being produced by the intentional or negligent actions of human agents, they are still referred to as “evils” in this tradition because they are seen as the side effects of the intentional actions of a nonhuman or divine agent, that is, of God. In this view, God could not prevent bringing about natural evils insofar as they are the unavoidable byproducts of the greater good of creation. In the attempt to reconcile human suffering with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect God, proponents of this view commonly interpreted natural evil as a deserved divine punishment for human sins. It is to these people that Voltaire (2000: 99) in his Poem on the Lisbon Disaster cries out: And can you then impute a sinful deed To babes who on their mother’s bosoms bleed? Was then more vice in fallen Lisbon found, Then Paris, where voluptuous joys abound? In line with his response to the Lisbon earthquake and his rejection of philosophical attempts at theodicy, Kant rejects the traditional distinction between natural and moral evil. Where “the [Latin] expressions boni and mali contain an ambiguity,” he notes, “the German language has the good fortune to possess expressions which do not allow this difference to be overlooked. . . . For bonum it has das Gute and das Wohl, for malum it has das Böse and das Übel” (KpV 5: 59). In other words, whereas the term boni is ambivalent between the good and well-being (or the pleasurable), the term mali is ambivalent between evil and what we may provisionally call ill-being (or the displeasurable). Where Kant’s predecessors understood the two senses of the Latin mali as 110


denoting two different subclasses of evil (i.e., natural and moral evil), Kant reserves the adjective “evil” exclusively for morally wrong actions and vicious character traits. Similarly, he reserves the adjective “good” in its moral sense for morally right actions and virtuous character traits. To be sure, Kant often retains the adjectives “moral” and “morally” in combination with the noun or adjective “evil,” but he does so merely to remind his readers that he is not referring to ill-being or the displeasurable. In brief, Kant holds that evil refers only to things that are under our voluntary control. His example of a Stoic in pain provides a vivid illustration of this point: One may always laugh at the Stoic who in the most intense pains of gout cried out: Pain, however you torment me I will still never admit that you are something evil [malum]!; nevertheless, he was correct. He felt that the pain was an ill, and his cry betrayed that; but he had no cause whatever to grant that any evil attached to him because of it, for the pain did not in the least diminish the worth of his person but only the worth of his condition. (KpV 5: 60) Evil and ill-being require different methods of explanation. If an event or states of affairs is to count as evil, it must be explicable in terms of reasons and intentions of agents and evaluated in light of practical laws. Ill-being must instead be explained in terms of preceding causes according to natural laws. Displeasurable as his pain may be, the Stoic is thus right to see that it is does not constitute an evil. Yet Kant makes a further point based on the example. Since Kant’s contemporaries understood natural evils as the effects of the intentional actions of God, it was not far-fetched for them to interpret the Stoic’s pain as a divine punishment for past wrongdoing. Opposing this interpretation, Kant claims that the pain gives the Stoic “no cause whatever to grant that any evil attached to him” and that it “does not in the least diminish the worth of his person.” On Kant’s analysis, then, the Stoic should interpret his pain as a consequence of his bodily condition rather than as an intentionally punishment for past wrongdoing. What is true about the Stoic holds for the citizens of Lisbon as well. On Kant’s account of evil, the Lisbon earthquake should not be understood as an intentionally imposed divine punishment for human sins but rather as a consequence of preceding causes in conjunction with the laws of nature.

Evil actions and evil persons While the second chapter of the analytic of the second Critique can be read as a criticism of the distinction between natural and moral evil, Kant’s criticism is more explicitly directed against teleological accounts of morality. Teleological accounts of morality define the deontic status of an action (i.e., whether it is obligatory, permissible, or wrong) in terms of the end (telos) served by the action, or the consequences it brings about. Although Bentham and Mill developed utilitarianism as a full-blown normative ethical theory only after the publication of the Critique of Practical Reason, it is helpful for contemporary readers to take utilitarianism as an example of a teleological account of morality. For Kant, good and evil are moral categories, whereas well-being and ill-being are natural categories. Although there are several analogies between these two oppositional pairs, shifting from the one to the other category amounts to making a category mistake. In stark contrast with this picture, utilitarians equate good with maximum aggregate well-being (or pleasure) and evil with the absence of this state and hence with ill-being (or displeasure). That means that 111

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utilitarians conceive of good and evil primarily as properties of states of affairs. These properties pertain to actions and persons only in a derivative way: actions are good or evil (i.e., morally right or wrong) and persons are good or evil (i.e., virtuous or vicious) insofar as they produce, or are disposed to produce, well-being or ill-being respectively. According to Kant, attempts to derive a moral criteria for action from an independently existing good can yield at most “practical precepts” but never practical laws (KpV 5: 62; GMS 4: 416). This is because whether an action promotes well-being or ill-being is always an empirical question. Since the answer to this question depends on the particularities of the circumstances of the action at hand, teleological accounts of morality can never provide us with an indubitable answer to the question what we ought to do. Kant therefore proposes to reverse the method. Rather than first identifying good with well-being and evil with ill-being and subsequently attempting to derive moral prescripts for action, moral theory should proceed precisely in the opposite direction: “the concept of good and evil must not be determined before the moral law . . . but only . . . after it and by means of it” (KpV 5: 62–3). It bears to note Kant does not use the term “moral law” as shorthand for a rational procedure rather than as a reference to a codex of laws of the form “thou shalt not x.” The principle of this procedure is, of course, the categorical imperative, of which the so-called Formula of Universal Law is no doubt the most famous formulation. It runs as follows: FUL: “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (GMS 4: 421). The categorical imperative primarily applies to maxims. I will say more about the notion of maxims in a minute. First note that if good and evil is defined by reference to the categorical imperative, and if the categorical imperative applies primarily to maxims, the properties of good and evil must also pertain primarily to maxims. Indeed, Kant claims that “good or evil always signifies a reference to the will,” and then proceeds to explain, good or evil is, strictly speaking, referred to actions, not to the person’s state of feeling, and if anything is to be good or evil absolutely . . . it would be only the way of acting, the maxim of the will, and consequently the acting person himself as a good or evil human being, that could be so called, but not a thing. (KpV 5: 60) While once more making explicit that good and evil are properties that pertain strictly speaking to actions or persons rather than to things or states of affairs, Kant now adds the important point that in their primordial sense good and evil are properties of maxims. The passage suggests that maxims bear close connection to actions and persons. How exactly are these notions connected? Let us start by taking a closer look at the notion of a maxim. Kant defines a maxim as “the subjective principle of volition” (GMS 4: 400n.) or also as “the subjective principle of acting” (GMS 4: 420n.). In the passage quoted above, Kant provides us with a further specification of this definition by equating “the maxim of the will” with “the way of acting.” A maxim is thus a principle according to which we act that describes not merely what we do but also how we do it.3 Although it is difficult to fit all Kant’s examples of maxims into a single mold, the formal structure of maxims is roughly as follows (see Allison 1990: 89–90): If I am in circumstances of the type C, then I perform an action of the type A



The maxim of a false promise is no doubt Kant’s most famous example: “When I believe myself to be in need of money I shall borrow money and promise to repay it, even though I know that this will never happen” (GMS 4: 422). Let us take this maxim through the categorical imperative procedure. The Formula of Universal Law says that it is permissible to act on a maxim M just when we can will M and at the same time will M as a universal law. Conversely, it says that it is impermissible to act on a maxim M just when we cannot will M and at the same time will M as a universal law. Kant claims that one cannot will the maxim of the false promise and at the same time will it as a universal law because: the universality of a law that everyone, when he believes himself to be in need, could promise whatever he pleases with the intention of not keeping it would make the promise and the end one might have in it itself impossible, since no one would believe what was promised him but would laugh at all such expressions as vain pretenses. (GMS 4: 422) In other words, I cannot will the maxim of a false promise and at the same time will it as a universal law, because, if I were to do so, I would want to acquire ready cash by making a false promise and at the same time want a world to exist in which false promises are impossible, which amounts to a practical contradiction. It is therefore not permitted to act on the maxim. In this way, we have found the criteria for good and evil action. An action A is good (i.e., morally permissible) in circumstances C if and only if A conforms to a maxim M and it is possible to will M and at the same time will M as a universal law. Conversely, an action A is evil (i.e., morally wrong) in circumstances C if and only if A conforms to a maxim M and it is impossible to will M and at the same time will M as a universal law. From here it is but a small step to the criteria for good and evil personhood. Note first that there is a structural similarity between maxims and dispositions. Like maxims, dispositions can be represented by means of a hypothetical sentence of the form “in circumstances of the type C, an event of type E occurs.” By calling a glass “fragile,” for example, we attribute to it a disposition that can be expressed as follows: in circumstances in which the glass is struck, it will break. Agents, too, have dispositions. I have the disposition to fall into the water if you push me from the edge of the pool, to mention but one example. But I also have the disposition to arrive late whenever I have an appointment early in the morning. This disposition is a character trait. Unlike the former disposition, the latter disposition or character trait is under my voluntary control. Let us therefore call it an attitude. An attitude is a disposition that is under one’s voluntary control in the sense that, if one were to adopt a different maxim, the disposition would at least gradually alter. Thus, I can change my disposition to arrive late whenever I have an appointment early in the morning by adopting the following maxim: “If my alarm clock rings, I will get out of bed immediately.” Based on this structural similarity, good and evil personhood can be defined in the following way: a character trait is good (i.e., morally virtuous) inasmuch as it expresses a maxim that passes the categorical imperative procedure and evil (i.e., morally vicious) inasmuch as it expresses a maxim that fails to pass this procedure. Thus, if a person is disposed to refrain from making false promises whenever she needs ready cash, we call her “trustworthy” and appraise her attitude as a virtue. By contrast, if a person is disposed to make false promises whenever she needs ready cash, we call her “untrustworthy” and appraise her attitude as a vice.


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Radical evil Kant’s account of radical evil in the Religion with the Realm of Reason Alone is the most famous part of his theory of evil, but at the same time it is also the part that is most often misunderstood. One reason for this is that Hannah Arendt appropriated the term “radical evil” in her attempt to give an account of the evils perpetrated by the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she claims that in the twentieth century evil “became the unpunishable, unforgivable absolute evil which could no longer be understood and explained by the evil motives of self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment, lust for power, and cowardice” (Arendt 1973: 459). This combination of being unpunishable, unforgivable, and incomprehensible, she asserts in The Human Condition, “is the true hallmark of those offenses which, since Kant, we call ‘radical evil’” (Arendt 1998: 241). As will become clear in this section, Arendt is wrong when she claims that Kant’s notion of radical evil refers to such extreme forms of moral wrongdoing. As I have already indicated in the introduction to this chapter, Kant uses the term “radical evil” to refer to the root or source of evil rather than to extreme forms of evil. “This evil is radical,” he explains, “since it corrupts the ground of all maxims” (RGV 6: 37). Thus far, we have inquired into the meaning of the term “evil” as a property of maxims, attitudes, and actions. Kant’s account of radical evil in the Religion shifts the focus one level up. We could say that it is a transcendental investigation into the conditions for the possibility of evil maxims. Its main question can accordingly be formulated as follows: how is it possible that human agents adopt evil maxims? One could wonder why this poses any problem at all. To understand why the answer to the question is not trivial, we must take a brief look at Kant’s account of moral motivation. A basic premise of Kant’s account of moral motivation is that the moral law is a sufficient incentive of the will (GMS 4: 419; KpV 5: 19, 71, 72, 75, 79, 88). We can understand this premise as saying that, if the moral law were our sole incentive, (objective) justifying reasons would automatically be (subjective) motivating reasons for us; that is, we would always do the right thing for the right reasons. If the moral law is a sufficient incentive of the will, the deviation of our maxims from the moral law cannot possibly be “the consequence of the lack of a moral incentive” but instead it must be “the consequence of a real and opposite determination of the power of choice” (RGV 6: 23n.). This sets Kant apart from a long philosophical tradition in which evil is understood as a privation or a lack of the good. Kant also parts ways with another long philosophical tradition of identifying our sensuous nature as the source of evil: “The ground of this evil cannot be placed, as is commonly done, in the sensuous nature of the human being, and in the natural inclinations originating from it” (RGV 6: 34; see also 21, 32). If human agents are to be morally responsible for evil, the source of evil must lie in freedom itself. Kant introduces the concept of a propensity [Hang] to evil to explain how it is possible that we adopt evil maxims. A propensity is defined as “the subjective ground of the possibility of an inclination,” where an inclination is defined as a “habitual desire” (RGV 6: 28). A propensity to evil, in particular, is “the subjective ground of the possibility of the deviation of maxims from the moral law” (RGV 6: 29). Let us try to understand this. In a footnote, Kant illustrates the concept of a propensity by means of an example of a propensity to intoxicants. Such a propensity, he claims, may be assumed even on the part of primitive people who are not acquainted with alcohol or other intoxicants: Although many of them have no acquaintance at all with intoxication, and hence absolutely no desire for the things that produce it, let them try these things but once, and there is aroused in them an almost inextinguishable desire for them. (RGV 6: 28n.) 114


Similar considerations hold for the propensity to evil. Imagine that you never strayed from the precepts of morality and never felt the desire to do so. If you happen to be a saint, just imagine yourself to be as you actually are. Even if you are a saint, you may nonetheless be susceptible to acquiring a habitual desire (i.e., an inclination) to disregard moral requirements. Such a propensity can be attributed to you just when it is true that, if you were to disregard the precepts of morality once, the thought of doing so again would thereafter present itself as a tempting option to you in a range of cases. If this counterfactual statement is true, we can attribute to you a propensity to evil. On this analysis, saying that a person is radically evil (in the technical sense of the term) does not amount to saying that she is a vicious person or that she engages in moral wrongdoing on a firstorder level: “An action contrary to law and a propensity to such contrariety, i.e. vice, do not always originate from it [from the propensity of evil]” (RGV 6: 37). Rather, it amounts to saying that under certain hypothetical conditions the person is prepared to let nonmoral considerations trump moral ones. Such a person’s second-order commitment to morality is thus not unconditional. Sometimes, Kant seems to suggest that, owing to this half-hearted commitment to morality, it is impossible for us to act for the right reasons, as a consequence of which moral worth and moral virtue would be fully out of our reach. Yet I believe this cannot be his considered view. The reason is that just as we can overcome our propensity to intoxicants and resist the temptation of an alcoholic beverage, so too “it must still be possible to overcome this evil” (RGV 6: 37) and to act for the right reasons despite being tempted to do otherwise. As Kant puts it succinctly, “an evil heart can coexist with a will which in is general good” (RGV 6: 37). Kant claims that our propensity to evil is both natural and innate [angeboren]. At the same time, he does not get tired of explaining that this does not mean that the propensity to evil is a necessary feature of the human species or that it is somehow inherited from our ancestors. The Christian doctrine of original sin, he claims, is “the most inappropriate” way of representing the origin of evil (RGV 6: 40). The propensity to evil is called “natural” and “innate” only in the sense that it is “antecedent to every deed that falls within the scope of the senses” (RGV 6: 21) and “antecedent to every use of freedom given in experience” (RGV 6: 22). The reason for this is clear. If we want to arrive at a reasoned decision what to do, we must weigh our reasons for action and consider individual maxims against the background of our fundamental commitments and values. That means that our flawed commitment to morality logically precedes the adoption of any particular maxim. For this reason, we are always already affected by our propensity to evil. Kant asserts that the propensity to evil is “natural” in yet another sense, namely in the sense that “the propensity to evil among human beings is universal” (RGV 6: 30; see also 21, 32). In other words, he claims that the propensity to evil is common to us all. With Timmons (1994) we may call this the universality thesis. In the Religion, Kant is reluctant to give a proof of this thesis, noting that “we can spare ourselves the formal proof in view of the multitude of woeful examples that the experience of human deeds parades before us” (RGV 6: 32–3). He does, however, provide us with some clues as to how the proof should look like. These clues are highly contradictory. Sometimes, Kant claims that the truth of the universality thesis “transpires from anthropological research” (RGV 6: 25) and may be presupposed on the basis of “the cognition we have of the human being through experience” (RGV 6: 32). At other occasions, he argues that such “experiential demonstrations” are insufficient to establish the truth of the universality thesis and that its truth “must be cognized a priori from the concept of evil” (RGV 6: 35; see also 39n.). Scholars have tried to lend Kant a helping hand by reconstructing the proof. Just as Kant’s clues are ambivalent, so too these scholars are divided on the question by which method the proof should proceed. Whereas some scholars 115

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attempt to develop an a priori argument for the universality thesis (Allison 2002; Morgan 2005), others try to justify it based on empirical premises about the nature of human beings (Wood 1999: 283–90; Anderson-Gold 2001; Sussman 2005). We have to face an important question at this point. If our propensity to evil is natural and innate in the sense that it logically precedes any particular use of our freedom in time, how can we possibly be responsible for it? Obviously our propensity to evil cannot be a mere disposition. If it were a mere disposition, we would not be responsible for it any more than I am responsible for my disposition to fall into the water if you push me from the edge of the pool. Kant accordingly observes that “this subjective ground must, in turn, itself always be a deed of freedom,” and he explains, “for otherwise the use or abuse of the human being’s power of choice with respect to the moral law could not be imputed to him, nor could the good or evil in him be called ‘moral’” (RGV 6: 21). Instead of in a natural disposition, the propensity of evil must therefore lie “in a rule that the power of choice itself produces for the exercise of its freedom, i.e., in a maxim” (RGV 6: 21). In the terminology introduced in the previous section, we can say that the propensity to evil is not so much a second-order disposition as a second-order attitude. Kant introduces the doctrine of the “intelligible act” (intelligible Tat) to explain how this second-order attitude toward moral considerations can be under voluntary control (RGV 6: 31). Although I believe this strategy is ultimately misguided, I will here attempt to present it in its best light. Kant’s exposition of the intelligible deed relies on his theory of transcendental idealism. According to transcendental idealism, we can consider things in two different ways. When we consider a thing as appearance, it appears to us as subject to the forms of intuition (i.e., space and time) and the categories of the understanding (e.g., substance and causality). When we consider it as thing in itself, we consider the thing as abstracted from these conditions. What holds for things holds for agents as well. Analogous to the distinction between appearance and thing in itself, Kant commonly draws a distinction between an agent’s “empirical character” and her “intelligible character” (A538–41/B566–9). Our empirical character is subject to the conditions of time and causality and consists of our first-order dispositions and attitudes. Our intelligible character, on the other hand, is not subject to the conditions of time and causality and is determined by our second-order attitude toward moral considerations. We can now turn to the notion of an intelligible act. An intelligible act denotes a timeless act by which we choose our intelligible character, and in virtue of which our second-order attitude toward moral considerations is under our voluntary control. Since such an intelligible act is not subject to the conditions of time and causality, it is “inscrutable” and withstands all possible explanation (RGV 6: 21, 21n., 43, 44). If you consider your actions from this perspective, it is true of each of your evil actions that you could have omitted it (RGV 6: 41). You could have omitted the evil (i.e., morally wrong) action in the following sense: (1) if you had chosen to commit yourself unconditionally to morality, you would have had only virtuous attitudes; and (2) if you had had only virtuous attitudes, you would not have performed the evil action. Importantly, these two counterfactual statements can be true even if, considered as appearance, your evil action was necessary given your empirical character and the circumstances of the action in conjunction with the laws of nature.4

Stages of evil and predispositions to the good The development of the propensity to evil has three stages. Kant refers to these stages as frailty, impurity, and depravity. The first stage, the frailty of human nature, consists in our susceptibility to weakness of will. We are weak-willed when we fail to act according to our own best judgment about what we all-things-considered ought to do. Our frailty consists in our regular failure 116


to act in the morally required way despite our correct judgment about what we all-thingsconsidered ought to do and our adoption of the right maxim. While objectively speaking the moral law provides us with a sufficient reason for acting in accordance with the maxim, in such cases the motive of duty is “subjectively . . . the weaker [incentive] (in comparison with inclination) whenever the maxim is to be followed” (RGV 6: 29). The impurity of the human heart consists in our propensity to adopt the right maxims partly for the wrong reasons. Suppose that I adopt a maxim of the form “whenever someone is in need, I do whatever I can to help her” for the reason that helping others gives me a feeling of satisfaction.5 In that case my heart is impure. “Although the maxim is good with respect to its object (the intended compliance with the law) and perhaps even powerful enough in practice,” Kant notes, the will has not “adopted the law alone as its sufficient incentive but, on the contrary, often (and perhaps always) needs still other incentives besides it in order to determine the power of choice for what duty requires” (RGV 6: 30). Having an impure heart, we tend to act in accordance with duty but at the same time fail to act from duty. One problem with noble, yet impure motivations is that they will lead us to do the wrong thing in a range of circumstances. For example, my maxim (adopted for the stipulated reasons) may lead me to help a bank robber carry a heavy safe to the getaway car. Finally, the depravity of the human heart consists in “the propensity of the power of choice to maxims that subordinate the incentives of the moral law to others (not moral ones)” (RGV 6: 30), that is, in our “propensity to adopt evil maxims” (RGV 6: 29). Given that the moral law gives us a sufficient reason to adopt the right maxim, we can adopt evil maxims only if our second-order maxim governing the adoption of first-order maxims makes compliance with the moral law conditional on nonmoral considerations. Thus, our heart is depraved if our second-order attitude toward moral considerations expresses a maxim of the following form: “I will adopt maxims in accordance with the moral law unless doing so would be too much at my expense.” A person whose second-order attitude toward morality expresses such a maxim may never have acted immorally. Anticipating modern debates about moral luck, Kant however notes that the person has never acted immorally merely because she was lucky never to have found herself in circumstances where doing the right thing requires substantial self-sacrifice (RGV 6: 38). Having discussed the stages of evil, let us now turn to our natural predispositions of the good. Kant’s discussion of our natural predispositions to the good once more confirms that the root of evil lies in our second-order attitude toward moral considerations rather than in a natural disposition. Human beings have a threefold predisposition to the good: a predisposition to animality, to humanity, and to personality. Each predisposition consists in a susceptibility to a certain kind of incentive. Our predisposition to animality consists in our susceptibility to the desire for food, drink, sex, and social community; our predisposition to humanity in our susceptibility to the desire to gain recognition in the eyes of others; and our predisposition to personality in our susceptibility to the incentive provided by the moral law (RGV 6: 26–8). Kant commonly subsumes the former two types of desires under the header of “self-love,” contrasting the motive of self-love with the motive of duty. Importantly, Kant emphasizes that all three dispositions are conducive to morality: “all these predispositions in the human being are not only (negatively) good (they do not resist the moral law) but they are also predispositions to the good (they demand compliance with it)” (RGV 6: 28). Our susceptibility to the desire for food, drink, and sex is good inasmuch as it leads us to strife for self-preservation and the preservation of the species; our susceptibility to the desire to be esteemed by others is good inasmuch as it leads us to develop our talents and capacities; and our susceptibility to being moved by respect for the moral law is good inasmuch as it leads us to strive for moral perfection. 117

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Just as the root of evil does not lie in our susceptibility to the motive of self-love but in our half-hearted commitment to morality, so too an agent is not evil on a first-order level because she is motivated by a desire for food, sex, or social recognition. As long as the gratification of these desires remains within the limits imposed by the moral law, being motivated in this way is a good thing. Agents are properly called evil or vicious only if they are disposed to act on the motive of self-love at the expense of morality. As Kant puts it, the difference, whether the human being is good or evil, must not lie in the difference between the incentives that he incorporates into his maxim (not in the material of the maxim) but in their subordination (in the form of the maxim): which of the two he makes the condition of the other. (RGV 6: 36) Subordinating the moral incentive to the desire for food and sex results in the vices of gluttony and lust, whereas subordinating it to the desire for social recognition results in the vices of envy, ingratitude, and joy in others’ misfortunes (Schadenfreude) (RGV 6: 27).

Kant’s exclusion of the diabolical will A direct consequence of the idea that evil consists in the subordination of the motive of duty to the motive of self-love is that human beings never wholly defy the moral law and choose evil simply for evil’s sake. In the Groundwork, Kant insists that even in our moral transgressions “we acknowledge the validity of the categorical imperative” and merely “take the liberty of making an exception to it for ourselves (or just for this once) to the advantage of our inclination” (GMS 4: 424). In the Religion, he similarly claims that “the human being (even the worst) does not repudiate the moral law, whatever his maxims, in rebellious attitude (by revoking obedience to it). The law rather imposes itself on him irresistibly, because of his moral predisposition” (RGV 6: 36). Several authors have criticized Kant for excluding the possibility of a diabolical will (Silber 1960; Bernstein 2002: 36–42; Card 2002: 83–5, 211–13). According to these critics, Kant is unable to account for many of the faces of evil that we know from experience due to his assumption that agents are motivated either by self-love or by duty, an assumption that precludes the possibility that evildoers do evil for evil’s sake. Suicide bombers provide a case in point. Since suicide bombers choose to a morally wrong action that knowingly leads to their own death, so the objection goes, they cannot possibly be motivated by either duty or self-love. Consequently, it is necessary to postulate a different kind of motive. Several things can be said in defense of Kant (see Caswell 2007). First, the objection seems to rely on a too narrow construal of the motive of self-love. On Kant’s broader construal, nothing seems to stand in the way of explaining a suicide attack as being motivated by self-love. Indeed, it is quite plausible to assume that suicide bombers are motivated by a desire to gain esteem in the eyes of others, even if they know that they will receive this recognition only posthumously, of course. Although this takes the sting out of the objection, it is not yet a justification for excluding the possibility of a diabolical will. After all, from the fact that a suicide attack can plausibly be explained by reference to the motive of self-love it does not follow that a suicide bomber cannot possibly be motivated by a desire other than self-love, and in particular by a desire to do evil for evil’s sake. To understand why Kant rejects this possibility out of hand, we must take a step back and look at his account of agency. In Kant’s view, freedom is constituted by principles of practical 118


rationality. This idea is expressed in its bear essence in what Henry Allison (1990) has called Kant’s reciprocity thesis. This thesis says that “a free will and a will under moral laws are one and the same” (GMS 4: 447) or that “freedom and unconditional practical law reciprocally imply each other” (KpV 5: 29). Freely translated, the reciprocity thesis says that agents are free and morally accountable if and only if they have the ability to step back from their desires and to guide their behavior in the light of the categorical imperative. In a footnote in the Religion, Kant puts the thought as follows: “This law [the moral law] is the only law that makes us conscious of the independence of our power of choice from determination by all other incentives (of our freedom) and thereby also of the accountability of all our actions” (RGV 6: 27n.). Now imagine Jack. Let us, for the sake of the argument, assume that Jack has a diabolical will and hence chooses to do evil for evil’s sake. By stipulation, Jack is motivated by the fact that his action is morally wrong, that is, by the fact that the moral law disallows it. Note, however, that if one is motivated to perform a morally wrong action by the mere fact that the moral law disallows it, one cannot at the same time be motivated to omit that action by that very same fact. From the assumption that Jack has a diabolical will, it thus follows that he cannot be motivated by respect for the moral law. If we combine this result with the reciprocity thesis, we know a priori that Jack does not have a diabolical will. Kant puts it thus: To think of oneself as a freely acting being, yet as exempted from the one law commensurate to such a being (the moral law), would amount to the thought of a cause operating without any law at all (for the determination according to natural law is abolished on account of freedom): and this is a contradiction. (RGV 6: 35) In other words, if agents are free and morally accountable just when they able to guide their behavior by the moral law, agents who are insusceptible to being moved by respect for the moral law are exempted from moral responsibility. Consequently, if Jack has a diabolical will, then he is unfree and exempted from moral responsibility. But an unfree and morally unaccountable will is not worth the name. Relatedly, the case of the psychopath stirred up an intense philosophical debate. On the most influential accounts, psychopaths suffer from emotional rather than cognitive deficits and are incapable of experiencing moral emotions such as guilt and empathy. Although the reality of psychopathy is far more complex, many philosophers interpret the psychopath as the real-life incarnation of the philosophical fiction of the amoralist. On this construal, the psychopath understands the requirements of morality all too well, but is simply not motivated to act accordingly. A central question in this debate is whether psychopaths can be held morally responsible for their actions. The Kantian answer to this question is clear. As Kant crudely puts it in the Metaphysics of Morals, if a human being were “completely lacking in receptivity to [the moral feeling of respect] he would be morally dead” (MS 6: 400). To put the same point more mildly, if the capacity to be motivated by moral reasons is a condition for moral responsibility, and if psychopaths are incapable of being motivated by moral reasons, then psychopaths are exempted from moral responsibility. They are ill and in need of treatment rather than evil and morally blameworthy.

Conclusion By way of conclusion, let me summarize the main points of this chapter. I started off the chapter by showing that, in contrast to contemporary accounts of evil, Kant does not draw a qualitative distinction between evil and moral wrongness. As such, evil is nothing beyond “ordinary” moral 119

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wrongdoing. In contrast to classic accounts of evil, Kant rejects the distinction between natural and moral evil. Evil is a property that pertains only to persons, actions, and the consequences of human actions; harmful events or states of affairs that are not caused by human actions must be explained in terms of preceding causes according to the laws of nature. Rather than identifying evil with some feature of reality, Kant defines evil by reference to the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative procedure yields that an action is evil (i.e., morally wrong) just when the maxim on which the action is based cannot be willed and at the same time be willed as a universal law. A person is called evil (i.e., morally vicious) just when she has character traits that are expressive of maxims that yield such practical contradictions. The notion of radical evil refers to the source of evil rather than to extreme forms of evil. In transcendental terms, radical evil is the condition for the possibility of the adoption of evil maxims. Kant departs from a long tradition in which evil is seen as a privation of the good. At the same time, he denies that the root of evil lies in our susceptibility to sensuous desires. The source of evil rather lies in our half-hearted commitment to morality. Although Kant claims that all human beings have a propensity to evil, this does not imply that we are all evil persons. It does imply, however, that our moral record may be relatively unmarred merely because we have been so lucky never to have found ourselves in dire circumstances. Critics have objected that Kant’s exclusion of the diabolical will runs in the face of moral reality, but on reflection the objection does not hold ground. Not only can many evil actions plausibly be interpreted as being motivated by self-love, but it also seems reasonable to assume that a person who lacks the capacity to be motivated by moral reasons is exempted from moral responsibility. At no point in this chapter it was necessary to invoke any religious ideas, which means that Kant’s theory of evil is entirely secular. True, Kant may have “slobbered on his philosopher’s cloak” by acknowledging that the stain of evil is common to us all, including himself. But this acknowledgment is anything but a disgrace. It is a frank admission of the fact that being an enlightened philosopher makes one no better than the rest of humanity.

Notes 1 Garcia (2002) attempts to formulate a Kantian theory of evil that accommodates a qualitative distinction between evil and “ordinary” immoral actions, but he concedes that “Kant’s ethical theory itself might be fairly interpreted as in fact opposed to such a distinction” (2002: 195). 2 All references to Kant’s works are to the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. Numbers refer to the volumes and pages of the standard edition of Kant’s works by the Royal German Academy of the Sciences. Numbers in references to the Critique of Pure Reason refer to the page numbers of the original A and B editions. I use the following abbreviations: A/B GMS KpV MS RGV

Critique of Pure Reason, Kant (1998). Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, in Kant (1996a). Critique of Practical Reason, in Kant (1996a). Metaphysics of Morals, in Kant (1996a). Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, in Kant (1996b).

3 The reasons for which we act (i.e., why we do something) can be brought to the fore by posing questions of the following form: “Would you still perform an action of the type A if the circumstances C were different?” 4 Consider the example of the malicious lie in the Critique of Pure Reason (A554–8/B582–6) and his example of the theft in the Critique of Practical Reason (KpV 5: 95–100). Wood (1984) provides a classic defense of this type of altered-past compatibilism. 5 Consider Kant’s example of the philanthropist in the Groundwork (GMS 4: 398–99).



References Allison, H.E. (1990) Kant’s Theory of Freedom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Allison, H.E. (1996) “Reflections on the Banality of (Radical) Evil: A Kantian Analysis,” in Idealism and Freedom: Essays on Kant’s Theoretical and Practical Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 169–82. Anderson-Gold, S. (2001) Unnecessary Evil: History and Moral Progress in the Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Arendt, H. (1998) The Human Condition, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Arendt, H. (1973) The Origins of Totalitarianism, San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace. Bernstein, R.J. (2002) Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation, Cambridge: Polity Press. Caswell, M. (2007) “Kant on the Diabolical Will. A Neglected Alternative?” Kantian Review 12 (2), pp. 147–57. Card, C. (2002) The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Garcia, E.V. (2002) “A Kantian Theory of Evil,” Monist 85 (2), pp. 194–209. Goethe, J.W. (1964) Goethes Briefe, Hamburg: Christian Wegner Verlag. Kant, I. (1998) Critique of Pure Reason, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Kant, I. (1996a) Practical Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Kant, I. (1996b) Religion and Rational Theology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Morgan, S. (2005) “The Missing Formal Proof of Humanity’s Radical Evil in Kant’s Religion,” Philosophical Review 114 (1), pp. 63–114. Silber, J. (1960) “The Ethical Significance of Kant’s Religion,” in I. Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, New York: Harper Torch, pp. cxxix–cxxx. Sussman, D. (2005) “Perversity of the Heart,” Philosophical Review 114 (2), pp. 153–77. Timmons, M. (1994) “Evil and Imputation in Kant’s Ethics,” Annual Review of Law and Ethics 2, pp. 113–41. Voltaire (2000) Candide and Related Texts, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett. Wood, A.W. (1999) Kant’s Ethical Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Wood, A.W. (1984) “Kant’s Compatibilism,” in A.W. Wood (ed.), Self and Nature in Kant’s Philosophy, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, pp. 73–101.


9 SADE Mushroom clouds and silver linings Thomas Nys

Il faut toujours en revenir à de Sade, c’est-à-dire a l’homme naturel, pour expliquer le mal. (Charles Baudelaire) Je n’arrive pas à le prendre au sérieux. (Paul Bourdin)1

The link between Marquis de Sade and the topic of evil seems fairly obvious. First, there is the man himself. Sade2 spent more than 30 years in confinement because of criminal behavior. He became especially notorious for – allegedly – having kidnapped, raped, and tortured a woman named Rose Keller, and, some years later, for performing illegal sexual acts (i.e., sodomy) with several prostitutes and poisoning them in the process (Carter, 2011). So there is generous evidence for supposing that Sade was an evil person. Second, he is the author of some very offensive books. His 120 Days of Sodom, for example, is essentially a list of 600 scenarios of wanton cruelty and torture involving infanticide, incest, bestiality, and necrophilia (to name but a few. . .). The work is considered to be so vile and depraved that, even in 2013, in times that appear far more tolerant and open-minded, there was some controversy over including it in the famous Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Russell, 2014). So, it is also beyond contestation that there is much that can be considered evil in his works. Third, and perhaps most significantly, not only is there a wealth of simply immoral acts in Sade, but his name will forever be associated with a particular type of moral wrongdoing: sadism. This term was used by psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing to describe a category of psychological perversion in which people would derive sexual pleasure from causing pain, injury, or humiliation to others.3 The sadistic motive to cause great or extreme4 suffering for purposes of one’s own sexual satisfaction pushes us into a darker or deeper realm of immorality to which, some would say, the label “evil” properly applies.5 However, this obvious association of Sade with the term evil only runs skin-deep. We should acknowledge, for instance, that there are many more, and far more serious criminals than Marquis de Sade. Although his acts were surely indecent and obscene, some perhaps even deserving of legal punishment, it is less clear that he can appropriately be labeled a 122


moral monster.6 At any rate, there are others – and, unfortunately, many others – that come much closer to earning that dubious epithet. Also, focusing on the barrage of filth and brutality within his works seems somehow misguided. For the same reservations hold in this area as well: there are many books describing acts at the extreme end of immorality. So why focus on Sade when there are better specimen to be examined? Surely, there must be something more than just the unlucky combination of an unsavory man writing questionable novels? There is at least one reason, I would suggest, why Sade indeed deserves a spot in any treatise or handbook on the philosophy of evil. More than just showing us evil (in his life and works), he also tried to deliver a philosophical justification of it, even of its most extravagant and sadistic manifestations (Philips 2005: 5; also in Butler 2006: 170). Admittedly, many authors before him tried to justify the reign of an all-powerful and beneficent God causing or allowing evil, but Sade mounted his defense precisely on the ruins of the theodicy. In a world without God, “evil” comes without sanction or guilt, and we can therefore vindicate the grossest immorality in the name of man and man alone. The very attempt to justify what we hold to be so wrong, without recourse to a higher being that moves in mysterious ways – a being we can point to and hold accountable – adds insult to injury. It makes the Sadean project itself seem evil. However, although it is tempting to consider Sade as the true Devil’s advocate, some reservations are in place. First, Sade is most famous for his fiction, not his philosophical tracts, and this focus leaves us in danger of taking fiction for philosophy. In fact, when we leave his outrageous plays and novels aside, Sade’s own thoughts on morals and politics appear to have been far more moderate and mainstream than the moral debauchery of his characters suggests (Sade, for instance, was against the death penalty). Second, the very suggestion that Sade tried to justify evil is highly deceiving. What he – or his characters – try to justify is what we consider evil (e.g., sadism). Yet, to provide a justification means that Sade does not take these practices to be evil at all. Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost famously cries out “Evil be thou my good” (4:110) and Sade fits the satanic mold in that he indeed reverses the labels: our evil is his good. But, at the same time, he might be as far removed from diabolical evil as Satan was himself, because both of them do not pursue evil for evil’s sake; they do it in order to take revenge on the Almighty or for the sake of personal pleasure (Scarre 2000). Therefore, they are not committed to evil as such. These reservations are relevant, but should be put into perspective. Many authors believe that Sade’s fiction is, in fact, philosophically interesting. People like Beauvoir, Horkheimer and Adorno, Lacan, Bataille, Klossowski, Camus,7 and Foucault, all think that there is something “revealing” about his work, whilst they are well aware that they are dealing with fiction (Lauwaert 2014). In fact, the fictitiousness, the aspect of myth, of phantasy, of wish and desire, is often key to their analyses. However, not all of these contributions are directly relevant to the topic of evil. In this chapter, I therefore want to restrict myself to the aspect of sadism, the peculiar type of evil-doing that made Sade so famous and that appears to have some pride of place in contemporary Anglo-analytic treatments of evil.8 This leaves us with the second cautionary remark raised above: the warning that Sade did not provide a genuine justification of evil. Some would say that sadism goes a long way in offering us an image of evil for evil’s sake.9 Sadists in the real world knowingly inflict suffering upon innocent people and this suffering constitutes an integral part of their enjoyment.10 They really want them to suffer, as they need it for their own sexual gratification. At the same time, we can fully admit that – in the final analysis – sadistic actions are not committed for evil’s sake, but “just” for pleasure (an element of these actions that seems to spur rather than diminish our moral outrage). In this chapter I want to reveal the philosophical background that Sade believes would support the practice of sadism. It will turn out, however, that this attempt for argumentative support leads him into trouble. Sadism is 123

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therefore much more of a problem for him than might appear. I will further try to argue that the frustration that comes with the inability to deal with the problem of sadism is precisely what gives the Sadean project its frantic character.

Adieu, mon dieu: a black theodicy I mentioned that Sade built his defense of evil on the ruins of the project of theodicy, so that seems a good place to start. A theodicy is essentially a defense of God in light of the problem of evil. It is a puzzle that consists of three seemingly contradictory elements: (1) God’s benevolence, (2) God’s omnipotence, and (3) the reality of evil. In order to defend God, one could try to argue, for example, that His omnipotence does not imply that He could do the impossible, or that what appears to be evil on the surface of things is actually for the best. The project of the theodicy has a long tradition, ranging from Epicure until, arguably, John Rawls (Weithman 2010; Haddock et al. 2010: 86). Still, to contemporary and secular ears, it might sound like an outdated and confusing project, because all authors engaged in it seem to refuse the obvious conclusion. Mme Dubois, a character in Sade’s Justine, however, does feel the force of this inevitable conclusion: I believe . . . that if there were a God there would be less evil on earth; I believe that since evil exists, these disorders are either expressly ordained by God, and there you have a barbarous fellow, or he is incapable of preventing them and right away you have a feeble God; in either case, an abominable being, a being whose lightning I should defy and whose law contemn. Ah, Therèse! Is not atheism preferable to one and the other of these extremes? The puzzle of the theodicy leads Mme Dubois to prefer atheism. The reality of evil simply belies the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent God. If we hold on to evil, unwilling to take anything away from it, this simply leaves no room for him. In the famous words of Nietzsche: “God’s only excuse is that he doesn’t exist.” Sade himself shared the position of his fictional Mme Dubois: he was an outspoken atheist who dared to shout “what other philosophers hardly dared to whisper” (Philips 2005: 9), and saw himself as a flag-bearer of a more radical type of Enlightenment where reason is no longer used in the service of faith but as a weapon to invalidate it. Nowadays, we are less vulnerable to the shock of atheism. We might therefore believe that the theodicies of Leibniz, Rousseau, and others are merely of historical interest, and that these thinkers were not really dealing with the problem of evil as it presents itself to us now. Such skepticism might be unwarranted (as the chapters in this handbook attest), but at least Sade, we could say, puts an end to the “old problem” – from now on, we have to deal with evil in the absence of God. However, for someone who is keen on highlighting this absence, God is remarkably present in the writings of Sade. Geoffrey Gorer has even suggested that Sade was more of a religious than a sexual fanatic (Gorer 1964: 93), a statement that should give us pause. So why does God feature so prominently in the writings of an atheist? Why dwell on a being that one does not believe in? The reason is perfectly simple. God appears as an object of ridicule or insult; the mode of mentioning the supreme being is blasphemy. As such, Sade challenges God where he does exists, namely in the hearts and minds of his believers. And, so, blasphemy also fits within the general theme of sadism: his characters increase the suffering of their victims by



offending what they hold dear. Not only does the libertine cause suffering; he also confronts his victims with God’s absence in the affair. “Where is your God now?” Yet, although it is true that blasphemy is an instrument in the hands of sadists, there is also a stronger sense in which God is still present in the works of Sade, forever wandering in the twilight. Not only does the Sadean man need victims who believe in God in order to torment them with blasphemy; he also needs God himself to trespass against his laws. This is the central truth in what is called “transgression,” a concept that we will further develop below. For now, we should draw attention to another striking feature that sets Sade apart. In Mme Dubois’s meditations, atheism is presented as a conclusion, drawn from the premise of evil. With evil all around us, we can no longer defend God. Voltaire, in his famous Poem on Lisbon, agrees on the absurdity of the defense: Leibniz’s theodicy becomes nothing short of cynical and extremely cold-hearted in light of undeserved and unnecessary human suffering. But, whereas Voltaire was truly outraged by the theodicy as a response to disaster and atrocity, Sade does not seem so shocked. “How could one maintain that this is the best of all possible worlds when thousands have perished in the Lisbon earthquake?” Voltaire would ask. “Sure,” Sade would respond with a shrug of the shoulders, “But how could one still say anything about that earthquake, if there is no longer any God to be blamed for it?” Such natural evil is part and parcel of living in a cold and indifferent universe. So, in the final analysis, Sade does deny the reality of evil. Sade makes one of his characters, Saint-Fond, also consider another option, an option in which both evil and God remain very real. I raise my eyes to the universe: I see evil, disorder, crime reigning as despots everywhere. My gaze descends, and it bends upon that most interesting of this universe’s creatures. I behold him likewise devoured by vices, by contradictions, by infamies; what ideal results from this examination . . . there exists a God; some hand or other has necessarily created all that I see, but has not created it save for evil; evil is his essence; and all that he causes us to commit is indispensable to his plans. Evil is all around us: very bad things happen to good and innocent people. So, if there is a God (a big unsubstantiated “if” on Sade’s part) then he intends to bring such undeserved suffering into the world. He would be, in Mme Dubois’s words, a “barbarous fellow” and this truth would be particularly hard to swallow. Suppose that God is a criminal, making us suffer. What would follow from that truth? Perhaps that we should find a way to appease the Black God. Yet, clearly, moral innocence – i.e., good behavior – is not the key to our salvation, for, if it were, the good and God-fearing people of Lisbon would not have been buried under the rubble of churches and cathedrals. So, we should instead be less innocent and follow in God’s footsteps: we should destroy creation and wreak havoc on the innocent. In a telling passage, the same Saint-Fond imagines God scolding mankind for not being more like him: it is God’s hate for man (instead of his love) that – in a perverse act of imitatio dei – should guide our behavior.11 We are created in the image of God, and this means that we should become criminals too. Hence, there might be a theological justification for something like sadism. Although powerful as a piece of literary imagination, this represents a dubious line of argumentation. Why should we do to each other what we condemn in God? Or, more generally: what speaks in favor of being cruel and causing suffering? In order to truly persuade us, it is not sufficient to just imagine a God that tells us to. And we know that Sade himself was an atheist who did not believe in any gods. So, we need to look for other grounds for potentially justifying “evil” and sadism.


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When nature calls: hedonism to the hilt Atheism, in itself, does not yield any practical recommendations; it does not tell us what to do. It merely denies the authority behind theories of divine law. Importantly, also in Sade’s case, it removes the authority behind the Christian commandments. We should no longer tremble before the Throne of God. But what should we do then? Consider Sade’s preface to Philosophy in the Boudoir: To libertines of all ages, and of every sex, and of every inclination; it is you to whom I dedicate this work. Your passions, which the cold and dreary moralists tell you to fear, are nothing more than the means by which Nature seeks to exhort you to do her work; surrender to these passions, therefore, and let the principles enumerated herein nourish you. . . .  To all: let us realize that we have been cast into this woeful life without our consent and have been assailed from the dawn of consciousness with the sophistries of those who would gain from our confusion; if we would snatch a brief moment of pleasure – if we would plant an occasional rose along life’s rocky path – we must sacrifice everything to the demands of our senses; this is the lesson of the Bedroom Philosophers. (Sade 2008: 208) The point to note here is that we get some clear normative recommendations at the end of both paragraphs, and that an appeal to nature is supposed to provide an argument for them. The point Sade wants to argue is that the moralists – society in general – are wrong: we should not fear and suppress our inclinations but, instead, we should give in to our desires and passions. Nature has bestowed us with these desires. We find ourselves having these inclinations and urges; it is simply who we are. Many readers undoubtedly will have some sympathy for Sade’s argument against the stuffy moralists who defend a cramped and outdated sexual morality, and who, for example, consider sodomy a capital offense. Sade is sometimes heralded as a great defender of sexual freedom, emphasizing the value and joy of sex beyond, or apart from, the goal of procreation (Butler 2006: 172) And perhaps some readers would even follow Sade in proclaiming that sex should not be laden with moral taboos, because, after all, it is “only natural.” But, as it stands, the argument is rather perplexing. In fact, if all desires are natural, then so is the desire to condemn liberal sexual morality. . . The only thing which we can properly claim is that nature does not condemn anything: it does not prevent us from performing actions that society would consider wrong or even evil. Yet it does not tell us what to do either. Indeed, Sade seems to say as much in his afterword to 120 Days of Sodom (when the reader, remember, has just worked through the 600 scenarios of horror): Would you scorn our libertines for practicing this or that vice? Well, they likewise scorn you for practicing this or that virtue. In the last analysis, it matters not a jot to anyone – least of all to Nature, who, in supplying us with our tastes, could not fail to realize that we would act upon them . . . Therefore, ye virtuous, go your way in comfort; hark unto the words of your crucified leader, who said, if the message has been transmitted to me accurately, “Virtue is its own reward.” As for we of voluptuous bent, we find our rewards in vice, and if there be future punishments due, they shall be readily accepted by all libertines, not the least of whom is your humble servant. (Sade 2008: 301) 126


Here, Sade appears to bite the proverbial bullet. Indeed, the virtuous should practice virtue, while the vicious should pursue vice. “Do as you please shall be the whole of the law.”12 This is also related to Sade’s belief in the truth of materialism and determinism. We are but “matter in motion” and we move from one moment in time to another with absolute necessity. Nature takes its course and the course of nature is set: its laws are eternal and determine what will happen. This is why Sade can claim that nature “exhorts us” to do “her work”; we just move with the ebb and flow of matter in constant flux. Whether determinism precludes moral responsibility is a hotly debated topic. One way to read Sade is to maintain that it is silly and unreasonable to hold people morally accountable in a deterministic universe. People do what they are bound to do; and neither praise or blame are in order for their actions.13 Importantly, however, the truth of determinism does not imply that we cannot make choices, only that we can never make any different choices than the ones we actually make. For us, individuals who are faced with choices – who do not know what we are bound to do; for whom the future seems open-ended – pleasure can be a guideline. Determinism, even of this “hard” responsibility-denying kind, need not deny that it would be better for us to enjoy life rather than to suffer. This then is Sade’s view on nature: nature exonerates us all, yet it is better to have pleasurable experiences than to be without them. The moralists’ emphasis on abstinence and moderation precludes our chances for happiness. Nature is indeed cold and indifferent; it does not prescribe or forbid anything, but satisfying our senses is pleasurable. That is also a “fact of nature.” So, Sade seems to ask, why not make the best of it? Why forsake our few chances of “heaven on earth” for the sake of some illusory afterlife? Although this might seem like a happy-go-lucky type of laissez-faire morality, it is not. Our sympathy for Sade’s argument against the sexual mores of his day contains the tacit assumption that sex is quite innocent. We think, of course, of consensual sex, of sex in which no one is wronged or harmed, of happy sex to the mutual enjoyment of all involved, but Sade’s argument unfortunately extends further. We should all do as we please, and this means that the “vicious” behavior of the vicious will not be without consequences for the virtuous. At first sight, we might believe that Sade’s views on nature, this framework of materialism and determinism, indeed validates the practice of sadism. But if pleasure is what human beings should pursue, then why should the sadist’s desire for torture be more important than his victim’s desire for not being tortured? So the Sadean defense of vice (i.e., evil as we, society, see it) is still pretty limited. It is limited to those who happen to have a desire for such “evil” things, as there is also no objection against those who desire delicious food, good literature, and consensual sex. Put differently, Sade has not yet convinced us that there is something appealing – or “recommendable” – about evil, only that there is nothing to hold against those who happen to prefer what we would label “evil acts.” And even that might be false. Because of the fact that each should pursue pleasure as he or she sees fit, this justification does not carry very far because, on this account, the sadistic desire is just one desire among others, each of which carries equal validity. Still, it makes a difference what path people take in life. Justine, perhaps Sade’s most famous protagonist, finds out that a life of virtue can be utterly miserable. She gets humiliated, tortured, and abused by all who are so inclined, and her virtuousness does not help her in any way. In fact, it seems to augment her suffering, for instance when she spares and saves the very people who subsequently violate her. To be virtuous often means to squander your own chances for happiness and to allow others – by turning the other cheek – to treat you very badly. Juliette, her twin sister, does not have that problem. She has learned to be vicious. This means that she can engage in a relentless pursuit of pleasure and is thereby able to plant some “roses” on life’s rocky path. 127

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So it is a matter of perspective: although it might matter “not a jot” to nature whether someone is vicious or virtuous, it does matter to the individual in question. The question then becomes: why are the vicious justified to pursue their pleasure at the expense of others?

Sade beyond sadism French philosopher and writer Maurice Blanchot provides us with an extremely interesting reconstruction of the Sadean argument. He shows us how a seemingly simple – what he calls basic – philosophy runs into contradictions and therefore needs to evolve and develop into something different. The feverish attempt on Sade’s part to make his philosophy fitting is also what gives it a streak of madness. Here is how Blanchot describes Sade’s basic philosophy: This philosophy is one of self-interest, then of complete egoism. Each of us must do what pleases us, each of us has no other law but our own pleasure. This morality is founded on the primary fact of absolute solitude. Sade said it and repeated it in all its forms: nature creates us alone, there is no connection whatsoever linking one man to another. Consequently, the only rule of conduct is that I favor all things that give me pleasure, without consideration of the consequences that this choice might hold for the other. Their greatest pain always counts less than my pleasure. What does it really matter, if the price I must pay for even my slightest joy is an outrageous assortment of hideous crimes, since this joy delights me, it is in me, yet the effect of my crimes do not touch me in the least, they are outside me. (Blanchot 2004: 10) There a two constitutive elements of this basic philosophy. The first is hedonism: the only thing that has intrinsic value is pleasure, that is, experiencing pleasurable states of mind. This is the normative bedrock of Sade’s philosophy that we already discussed above.14 But, importantly, Blanchot points to another element in Sade, a metaphysical rather than normative aspect that I will dub “metaphysical solitude.” This involves the claim that we are separated from our fellow creatures because we can only experience our own experiences. On the one hand, this should strike us as a self-evident, trivial, and tautological truth. But, on the other hand, it should also strike us as patently false. When I commiserate with those I hold dear, I partake in their misery: when they are sad, I am sad too. And when they are happy I take delight in their happiness. This, however, does not refute the Marquis. For, even in these moment of commiseration and sympathy, I still only experience my own experience. I do not truly experience the pain or joy of others. Their plight might be the cause of my condition, but it is not equivalent to it. This implies that the link between my happiness and yours, between your misery and mine, is contingent. I just might rejoice in your joy, but I need not. And I might feel awful when you are in pain, but I need not. I might also take delight in it. Sade’s basic philosophy amounts to, in contemporary analytic terms, egoist hedonism. The element of metaphysical solitude in necessary to solve the quandary raised above of why any particular desire or pleasure is more valuable than any other. From the vantage point of the universe we are all equal (that is, equally insignificant) but from the individual’s perspective, the way she experiences the world, her experience is infinitely more valuable than that of others. G.E. Moore once argued that the position of egoism – as a normative theory – is self-refuting because (1) it tells me to maximize my pleasure, (2) it tells everybody to maximize their pleasure, and therefore (3) it would be impossible for me (and for all others) to maximize my pleasure. People would get in each other’s way and this would preclude them from reaching 128


maximum personal satisfaction. Others have argued, however, that this is not an objection to egoism. Egoism just states that we should pursue our self-interest, and try to maximize it, not that we should be successful in that endeavor.15 The result is indeed that people will get in each other’s way, and that there will be a tremendous power struggle, but that is a consequence of the theory, not its refutation. Some people take pleasure in torturing others but, equally, many people abhor being victims of torture. Consequently, only some will be able to get what they want, and it is obvious that, in this struggle, being virtuous might not be of any help in achieving one’s desired ends. The theory however remains limited. Although acts of sadism are justified, even when they interfere with the well-being of the victims, there is still no reason for sadism. It does not tell us why sadism is preferable over gardening or collecting post stamps. Philosophy is merely used as an instrument to justify a certain pathology (because sadism is just another source of pleasure, on a par with gardening or collecting post stamps). This remains a disquieting message as it stands, for it would render the victims argumentatively powerless to the abuse of their opponents. And indeed, in contemplating this message, we tend to identify as the potential victims. We would find evil in the pages, yet, in being worried as possible targets for abuse, we would affirm to ourselves that we, at least, are not evil. We are no sadists; we are not sick in the head. Geoffrey Gorer, however, grounds sadism in a far more general human proclivity. He believes that human beings typically have a desire to leave an impression upon the world. We all want to make a difference and to be acknowledged as the author of this difference. We want to be recognized as subjects, as agents, capable of acting upon the world. This might be the source of culture, art, science, and beauty in society, but, according to Gorer, the surest way to get such recognition, to be acknowledged as the source of difference, is to inflict pain upon another: “What is certain is that you can produce far greater, more varied, and more obvious modifications on other people by pain than by pleasure, and therefore greater satisfaction for the agent” (1964: 157). In the eyes of our victims we see the immediate effect of our actions, and we relish in the knowledge that it was us who were the cause of their condition. Nietzsche, in The Gay Science, makes a different but related observation: We hurt those to whom we need to make our power perceptible, for pain is a much more sensitive means to that end than pleasure: pain always asks for the cause, while pleasure is inclined to stop with itself and not look back. (Nietzsche 2001: 38) When in pain, we look for a cause, whereas, when we enjoy life, we tend to lose ourselves in the moment. Suffering needs an explanation; happiness does not. So, when I suffer, I seek out its cause: I look out for my tormentor, and by doing so I affirm his power. If there is any truth to this mechanism, then the practice of sadism becomes a human affair: it is no longer a type of pathology that we can hold at arm’s length, but it should be located much closer to home. I will leave it up to the reader to determine whether these bold claims by Nietzsche and Gorer contain any truth.16 Perhaps the biggest contribution of Blanchot is that, by revealing the foundations of Sade’s basic philosophy, he also shows its inadequacy. What appears to be the argumentative underpinning for the evil of sadism is, in effect, ill-suited for this job, because, when carefully considering the nature of sadism, it contradicts the very premise from which is was supposed to follow. The claim of metaphysical solitude was meant to support and justify the sadist’s disregard for the well-being of his victims, but sadists have no such disregard. In fact, they are very much dependent upon the subjective experience of their victims. Their pleasure depends on the 129

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others’ misery. What is sadism other than the attempt to experience the other’s experience, if only to relish in the agony of another? If metaphysical solitude is real, then sadism becomes a feverish attempt to gain access to a world that is otherwise foreclosed, an impossible longing for unlocking the inner world of the other. If it is false, however, then we lose the necessary element that would justify the moral disregard for the quality of the other’s experience. Put differently, on Sade’s view, our fate of being created separately makes possible the practice of sadism but this specific practice seeks to overcome that very predicament (the success of which is premised on the untruth of the metaphysical claim). It should be clear that sadism and metaphysical solitude make for an uncomfortable match.

From pathology to principle And, so, the thing for which Sade became so famous and which features so prominently in his writings – sadism – is the very thing for which he cannot account. In fact, trying to do so brings up contradictions and tensions. One of Blanchot’s central insights is that this immense tension within Sade’s work leads him to push further. The focus, for example, shifts from torturing and killing individuals to the slaughter of thousands of nameless people, thereby suggesting that the Sadean criminal is no longer attached – not psychologically “invested” – in the inner life of particular persons. Also, the libertines in his novels sometimes tell their victims that they are “dead already” well before the torture begins, thereby again denying that they care about their experiences (Blanchot 2004: 24–5). In short, the embarrassment of the sadist’s connectedness to his victim results in an attempt to, literally and finally, get rid of the Other. If Blanchot is correct, then there is an interesting “reversal” in the work of Sade. The project is now no longer to support sadism by the premise of metaphysical loneliness, but to use sadism to establish the truth of such solitude. By performing acts of sadism we prove that we are not moved or disturbed by the subjective experiences of our fellow men. The Sadean ideal is to stand alone, and sadism is the means to accomplish that. In this context, Blanchot calls attention to the theme of apathy in Sade’s work: the libertines, in acting out their scenes of cruelty, need to remain unperturbed, which is different from the sadist frothing at the mouth and relishing in his behavior (Blanchot 2004: 35–9). The challenge is to stand detached from the evil that they do, and it is this ability to do so – to remain undisturbed – that gives them joy. Pleasure therefore features differently within these two stories: there is pleasure in fulfilling my desires, but there is also pleasure (operating at a higher level) in denying them, for this affirms my autonomy: i.e., my not being driven by desires, but instead being fully in control of them. Either I just happen to enjoy the suffering of others (and then I am dependent upon their inner life) or, by committing acts of cruelty to others, I establish and affirm my independence and rise above my inclinations, above nature, and become truly sovereign. In this context, Jacques Lacan has most famously emphasized the affinity between Sade and Kant – bien ettonnés de se trouver ensemble – arguing that both want to establish a principle that is possibly, yet relentlessly, opposed to snug and comfortable desire-satisfaction (Lacan 1963). The Sadean criminal is not just passively driven to his acts of madness; he is actively committed to them. Others have noted this move from pathology to principle as well. Simone de Beauvoir, for example, deliberately calls Sade’s philosophy an “ethic,” a project interrogating “the fundamental relations of self and Other, seeking to know their limits and the conditions of their possibility” (Butler 2006: 174–5). Beauvoir sees in Sade the truth of existentialist philosophy, being centered on individual freedom and authenticity. Interestingly, for instance, Sade sets himself apart from society, denouncing the way “evil” is used in it, but, by doing so, also calls attention to the systemic evil that goes unnoticed in that community. The criminal act of murder, up 130


close and personal, is put against the lawful genocide of hundreds, thousands, if not millions of those the state puts silently to death. Here, Beauvoir seemingly disagrees with Horkheimer and Adorno (2002), who see Sade as an exponent of the Enlightenment and his work as a prefiguration of the totalitarian atrocities of the early twentieth century, offering us a rational justification for murder. However, Horkheimer and Adorno’s valuation of Sade is actually more subtle: precisely because Sade is this fictional prefiguration he could serve as Enlightenment’s own warning sign, its own medium for reflection, offering us a chance for contemplating its utter consequences.17 With this subtlety in place, we could say that the difference with Beauvoir is that she locates the glimmer of hope (of potential resistance to dark possibilities) elsewhere, interpreting his work as a quest for authenticity, describing acts of rebellion, of refusing to go along with the rational blueprint of the ideal society (and the horror and terror that comes with it). And what is even more interesting, on Beauvoir’s account, is that this desire for authenticity operates through the other (Butler 2006: 83–4). Sade seeks to affirm his sovereignty in opposition, and even at the expense, of the other. The Sadean man affirms his solitude, his superiority, his power, by negating the other and denying whatever ties there might exist between him and his victims – thereby also overcoming and killing something within himself (and, importantly, whether that “something” is orgiastic excitement or deep repulsion for the act becomes secondary). The goal is now not to be affected, not to be moved in any way. In the act of killing, he rises above his own humanity, and becomes a god. But every victory also gives testimony to his defeat. This is so because sadism requires us to give up something, to deny something that has a hold on us (be it some pathological drive, the moral law, the social mores, our natural revulsion. . .). Only then can sadism truly be liberating. The strength of the libertine’s affirmation is therefore dependent upon the force of that which he denies or overcomes. So, in proclaiming his victims’ nothingness he immediately destroys the significance of his victory. The Sadean man needs to presuppose some connection to the other, something that has a hold on him, for him to be able to deny it. His independence is parasitical upon a more fundamental dependence. So it appears, at first, that Sade seeks to differentiate himself from his lovers [sic] by being the sovereign will who acts upon another’s body, it turns out that the only way the “sovereign will” can take pleasure in its action is by imagining, even if only vicariously and through displacement, the dissolution of its own sovereignty and will. (Butler 2006: 185) But, whereas for Beauvoir the possibility of real inter-subjectivity, of connecting with the other through the flesh, should be fairly acknowledged, Sade remains stuck in this paradox: he is unable to shrug of the other, which only makes him shrug harder, providing further evidence of being so affected by the other, and so on. The result is the frenzy that we know from his work (and, if not frenzy, then the tedious repetition of it all).

Fiction as reality’s rape I already briefly mentioned the notion of “transgression” when commenting on the striking presence of God in the works of a staunch atheist. This notion plays a crucial role in the writings of George Bataille and it involves the “slippage” of a norm that we otherwise acknowledge as valid and important (Surkis 1996). In rituals and festivals, for example, the rules and taboos of everyday life are often loosened and transgressed (mostly symbolic), with these rituals themselves 131

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having strict rules and regulations (allowing for the “exception”). There is ecstatic joy, even elation (the French jouissance that is often mentioned in this context has sexual connotations), in the slippage, the overcoming of what one deems as being beyond the pale of ordinary conduct. God, as the supreme lawgiver is therefore also the supreme target for transgression; in sacrilege and blasphemy the Sadean man takes on his final opponent, a worthy adversary whose worthlessness should be shown at each and every occasion (but, as we now know, whose worthlessness would take away the very need for opposition). The point about transgression is not just that there is joy in breaking the law. We could perhaps interpret Sade as someone who transgresses a law that he himself finds silly and oppressive (Scarre 2000), someone who finds a certain freedom in the bedroom that he does not find outside. But although that might be true for Sade himself, this isn’t enough to account for the immorality of his characters. For them, there is value and pleasure in doing something they consider evil themselves: they believe they are beyond the law and the magnificence of this “beyond” only makes sense if the law is something that should otherwise be respected if not revered. Bataille’s concept of transgression therefore neatly complements the analysis offered above. But it also allows us to give the project a final surprising twist. We established that sadism essentially constitutes a problem for Sade, because it implies a dependency he wants to deny. In fact, Sade wants to overcome all dependencies because they, at once, mean a limitation of the individual’s sovereignty and an opportunity to affirm it. Therefore all men must perish, and so must God. But we are also dependent upon nature, as we indeed move with the ebb and flow of matter in motion. We are not free from the laws of nature. It speaks in favor of the Marquis’s consistency that this frustrates and infuriates him as well. In another famous passage he imagines a machine(!) that would disrupt the laws of nature: a human invention that would gainsay the rule of Mother Nature and that would – as supervillains tend to do – plunge this ordered “cosmos” back into chaos: and Nature is the one I really want to outrage; I would like to upset its plans, to foil its proceedings, to stop the orbit of the stars, to disrupt the planets that float in space, to destroy all that serves it, to protect all that harms it, in a word, to insult the core of Nature. (quoted in Blanchot 2004: 33) At first sight, this seems amusing proof of Sade wanting to deny the impossible, and of presupposing the truth of that which he wants to deny (how is this machine supposed to work if not by the laws of nature?). But by doing so we would take Sade too seriously, or perhaps not seriously enough. The machine is a piece of imagination, and Sade’s works are works of fiction. And fiction is the ultimate form of transgression, as it allows us to move beyond the ordinary rules of reality. So, in writing, Sade commits the absolute crime. Sade wrote most of his works in prison or mental asylums. This was the only way in which he could lash out at society and simultaneously create his own world. It expressed his wish to become sovereign, a dream that was clearly impossible for him (being incarcerated) and that remains so for us (at the level of philosophical theory) but that was nevertheless made real in the act of creating fiction. The vile characters in Sade’s books often try to justify their gross immorality with the use of philosophical arguments. But these arguments are defective. Not only can certain theoretical assumptions be questioned on their own grounds (e.g., the tenability of hedonism, the implications of “hard” determinism) but the practice of sadism contradicts the single 132


premise that would warrant such extreme moral disregard: our metaphysical solitude. But the failure of this philosophical enterprise is at the heart of Sadean literature; it is an integral part of it. It forms the eternal nub of frustration that provides Sade with infinite momentum: truly overcoming all dependencies and boundaries in and through fiction, creating a genuine nonphilosophy of evil. But perhaps there is a lesson about real-life evil in it as well. Perhaps it can serve as a testament to human stubbornness, to our proclivity to resort to violence whenever rational argument and persuasion do not get us where we want, and to affirm ourselves through easy negation and destruction rather than the careful attention that is needed to truly connect to each other.

Notes 1 Both quotes are mentioned in Gorer (1964). 2 Some authors use “de Sade,” others just “Sade” (Carter 2011: 7–8). I prefer “Sade” in order to avoid the confusing lower-cased “de.” 3 It is defined in the DSM IV as: “recurrent intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving acts (real, not simulated) in which the psychological or physical suffering (including humiliation) of the victim is sexually enticing to the person” (quoted in Stone 2010: 135). It is the disjunctive, the “or,” that authors such as Stone find problematic: having these intense fantasies and urges does not, by itself, constitute sadism – sadism requires action, i.e., causing the victim physical or psychological injury and deriving sexual pleasure from it. 4 It seems that sadism is “dimensional” (Laws & O’Donohue 2008: 232) and that only the infliction of more extreme forms of suffering would count as evil. However, some authors would not consider extreme harm or suffering necessary for actions being evil (e.g., de Wijze 2017). 5 For a discussion how this motive relates to evil, see the chapters by Todd Calder and Luke Russell in this volume. 6 As mentioned, Sade denied the accusations made by Rose Keller and there is some evidence that she might have exaggerated the events (Carter 2011: 33–6). Also, the prostitutes involved in the Marseille incident survived and Sade had no intention to either injure or kill them. The “poisoned” sweets were meant as an aphrodisiac or to stimulate flatulence, but the girls became ill afterwards. 7 For an excellent account of Camus’s interpretation of Sade, see the contribution by Matthew Sharpe in this volume. 8 Some theorists on evil consider sadism as the psychological “essence” of evil (McGinn 1997; Perrett 2002; Steiner 2002), whereas others would merely label it as sufficient for evil actions (Eagleton, 2010). Some believe that the sadistic motive is of such a particular malicious kind that it allows for a qualitative distinction between some act being “very wrong” and actually “evil” (Calder 2013), whereas others see it as an extremely aggravating factor pulling toward the evil spectrum of immoral actions (Formosa 2013). Yet, despite all the differences between these various accounts, sadism is highly associated with evil. 9 See, for example, the chapter by Leo Zaibert in this volume. 10 For a harrowing description of the evil that sexual sadists sometimes commit, see Stone (2010). 11 Quoted and discussed in Neiman (2002: 190). 12 A phrase attributed to Alistair Crowley. 13 This type of “hard determinism” is for example defended by Galen Strawson (1994). For a discussion on evil and moral responsibility, see the chapters by Laurens van Apeldoorn and, especially, Lars Svendsen in this volume. 14 The truth of hedonism, of course, can be questioned. The locus classicus here is Robert Nozick’s discussion of the Experience Machine (1974: 42–5). 15 “To desire that people behave selfishly is not to desire that any of them come out on top; nor is it the desire that oneself come out on top; it is simply to desire a particular state of affairs, namely, that each person follows a certain rule [that is] to do what is most in his self-interest” (Jesse Kalin quoted in Regis 1980: 56–7). 16 But consider: if sadism was so far removed from us, then why would we label Sade’s work as pornographic? Where would the appeal – the danger, the need for censorship – come from? 17 I am thankful to Stefan Niklas for commenting on an earlier version of this paragraph.


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References Blanchot, M. (2004) “Sade’s Reason,” in Lautréamont and Sade, translated by S. Kendall and M. Kendall, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Butler, J. (2006) “Beauvoir on Sade: Making Sexuality into an Ethic,” in The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir, C. Card (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Calder, T. (2013) “Is Evil Just Very Wrong?” Philosophical Studies 163: 177–96. Carter, D. (2011) Marquis de Sade, London: Hesperus Press. de Beauvoir, S. (1953) “Must We Burn Sade?” in Marquis de Sade: An Essay by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Annette Michelson, New York: Grove. de Wijze, S. (2017) “Small-Scale Evil,” The Journal of Value Inquiry 52: 25–35. Gorer, G. (1964) The Life and Ideas of Marquis de Sade, London: Cox and Wyman. Eagleton, T. (2010) On Evil, New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press. Formosa, P. (2013) “Evil, Wrongs, and Dignity: How to Test a Theory of Evil.” The Journal of Value Inquiry 47: 235–53. Haddock, B., Roberts, P., and Sutch, P. (2011) Evil in Contemporary Political Thought, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Horkheimer, M., and Adorno, T. (2002) The Dialectic of Enlightenment, edited by Edmund Jephcott, translated by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Lacan, J. (1963) “Kant avec Sade,” Critique 191: 291–313. Lauwaert, L. (2014) Markies de Sade: Essays over ethiek en kliniek, literatuur en natuur, Kalmthout: Pelckmans. Laws, R.D., and O’Donohue T.W. (2008) Sexual Deviance: Theory, Assessment, and Treatment, New York: Guilford Press. Marchak, C. (1990) “The Joy of Transgression: Bataille and Kristeva,” Philosophy Today 34(4): 354–63. McGinn, C. (1997) Evil, Ethics, and Fiction, Oxford: Clarendon Press. Neiman, S. Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Nietzsche, F. (2001) The Gay Science, translated by J. Nauckhoff and A. Del Caro, B. Williams (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Nozick, R. (1974) Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Oxford: Blackwell. Perrett. R. (2002) “Evil and Human Nature,” The Monist 85: 304–19. Philips, J. (2005) How to Read Sade, New York: W.W. Norton. Regis, E. (1980) “What is Ethical Egoism?” Ethics 91(1): 50–62. Russell, M.M. (2014) The Divine Marquis’ Ethical Project: Sade and the “Turn to Religion” in Postmodernist Philosophy, PhD thesis defended at Curtin University. Sade, D.A.F. (2008) The Complete Marquis de Sade, translated by P. Gilette, Los Angeles, CA: Holloway House. Scarre, G. (2000) “Can Evil Attract?” The Heytrop Journal 41: 303–17. Steiner, H. (2002) “Calibrating Evil,” The Monist 85: 183–93. Stone, M. (2004) “Sexual Sadism: A Portrait of Evil,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry 38(1): 133–57. Strawson, G. (1994) “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility,” Philosophical Studies 75(1/2): 5–24. Surkis, J. (1996) “No Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an Eye: Transgression and Masculinity in Bataille and Foucault,” Diacritics 26: 18–30. Weithman, P. (2010) Why Political Liberalism? On Rawls’s Political Turn, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


10 NIETZSCHE’S CRITIQUE OF MORALITY AND HIS EFFORT TO CREATE AN EVALUATION “BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL” Paul van Tongeren Introduction From his earliest texts and until the very end of Nietzsche’s writing, evil constitutes an important theme in his thinking. In his reflections on evil Nietzsche is almost always dealing with moral evil. In the preface to On the Genealogy of Morals he writes that “the problem of the origin of evil pursued me even as a boy of thirteen” (GM, Preface 3), and one can still find hypotheses on the origin of evil in his final, posthumously published works (The Anti-Christ and Ecce Homo). While his thoughts on evil developed over the years, they are characterized by a great deal of continuity and consistency. That it is nevertheless not easy to summarize his thoughts is, among other reasons, because Nietzsche’s writing is intentionally unsystematic and experimental, often hyperbolic and always polemical. One other reason why Nietzsche’s thoughts on evil are difficult to present and might be perplexing is because they do not easily fit in the main discussions as we find them in the history of philosophy. On the whole one could say that, while traditional philosophy solved the problem of (meta)physical evil (i.e., the evil that affects us and ultimately coincides with the imperfection of reality) by labeling it as a moral evil (either as malum poenae or as malum culpae), and explaining moral evil with the metaphysical notion of freedom, Nietzsche clearly heads in a different direction. He replaces metaphysics with anthropology (see Wulf 1999, p. 355) and labels moral evil as a moral interpretation of what one rather should call physical evil: pain, oppression, cruelty, etc. are not moral evil in and of themselves but rather are natural phenomena, condemned as moral evil by those who suffer under them and who “invent” freedom to justify that condemnation. That same mechanism has been employed with respect to natural phenomena such as lightning: “what is unpredictable, e.g. lightning, is evil” (NF 1880 4[122]). Amongst other ways, Nietzsche criticizes this procedure by denying freedom and responsibility. That places him in opposition to Kant, whose theory of radical evil has, however (and different to what is suggested by Schulte 1988), hardly left any traces in Nietzsche’s thought. The most prominent interlocutors and influences on Nietzsche’s views on evil are, apart from Schopenhauer (see Dews 2008, ch.4), mostly contemporary authors such as Paul Rée and Herbert Spencer, who do not play an important role in the history of philosophy.


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For all these reasons it comes to no surprise that in the secondary literature on Nietzsche, which is vast, the concept “evil” itself receives remarkably little attention. The term does not even come up in the index of The Oxford Handbook on Nietzsche, nor does it have its own entry in both the Nietzsche Handbuch or in the Nietzsche Wörterbuch, and when one looks up the term “böse” in the Weimarer Nietzsche Bibliographie it only brings up five entries of publications between 1911 and 2010. Of course, this is partially explained by the way the term comes to the fore in keywords like “good and evil,” “morality,” “slave morality,” etc. The literature on the book On the Genealogy of Morals, in which Nietzsche elaborates his hypothesis on the genesis and development of the distinction between “good and evil” most thoroughly, is extensive (see Conway 2008, Hatab 2008, Janaway 2007, Leiter 2002, Owen 2007, Stegmaier 1994). But the meaning of the term “evil” has itself not received any extensive research. Three of Nietzsche’s terms are prominent and occur frequently: “böse,” “schlecht,” and “übel.” The last of these terms occurs least, and mostly in letters. There it generally means “bad” in the sense of bad weather, a painful feeling, a nasty smell, etc. In conjunctions like “Übeltat” or “Übeltäter” it refers to the moral evil of the evildoer. But when used as a noun it represents what has traditionally been taken as physical or metaphysical evil. As we will still see, the term “schlecht” becomes important as a result of the way in which Nietzsche utilizes it in his revaluation of the manner in which the third term, “böse,” is generally used. This “böse,” used both adjectively and as a noun, is the most important term for our purposes and the one that occurs most frequently in Nietzsche’s texts. The term almost always signifies moral evil, which is the main focus of the following systematic overview, which is arranged in such a way as to be largely chronological, but one should take into account that many of its parts will return in subsequent phases.

Good and evil are interpretations, not realities To make sense of what Nietzsche thinks about evil it is necessary to look at what he has to say about the distinction between good and evil. This immediately demonstrates that Nietzsche does not simply maintain a certain position within that distinction in order to develop a theory of evil from that position, but rather that he sets out to question this very distinction. He does not so much ask what evil is or where it comes from but rather asks why we have called some things good and others evil, and what may have resulted from those designations. Nietzsche’s earliest works already put forward the thesis that the moral distinction between good and evil is a human interpretation with no grounding in reality: “[o]n their own neither good nor bad actions exist” (NF 1876 23[152]). This thesis can take several forms. The early Nietzsche tends to present this view as an insight of the pre-Platonic Greeks. Sometimes he writes that the Greeks deified both good and evil; at other times he claims that their gods stood beyond good and evil (NF 1884 26[193]). Of course, this does not mean that the Greeks did not recognize a distinction between good and evil: they certainly did, but could do so without renouncing what was deemed evil. Instead they recognized not just the reality but also the necessity of evil: [o]ne granted to the evil and suspicious, to the animal and backward . . . a moderate discharge, and did not strive after their total annihilation. . . . [They had] no desire to deny even evil altogether [but were] satisfied if it keeps itself within bounds and refrains from wholesale slaughter or inner subversion. (AOM 220)


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What Nietzsche is focusing on and what he tries to get rid of is the condemning implication that accompanies the moral distinction. It is really from Human, All Too Human onwards that the perspective of the Gods is replaced by a “scientific” description of nature, from which the moral distinction is once again absent: “it is quite obvious that the world is neither good nor evil, let alone the best of all or the worst of all worlds, and that these concepts ‘good’ and ‘evil’ possess meaning only when applied to men” (HAH 28). People call one thing good and another evil. But because they do so from a human perspective, because “[a]ll ‘evil’ acts are motivated by the drive to preservation,” these acts cannot be labeled evil in and of themselves: “so motivated . . . they are not evil” (HAH 99). His naturalistic perspective really causes the distinction between good and evil to disappear: “between good and evil actions there is no difference in kind, but at the most one of degree. Good actions are sublimated evil ones; evil actions are coarsened, brutalized good ones” (HAH 107). Nietzsche argues that those actions which are called evil are in fact morally neutral, or even “good,” since, as he points out, “people underrate the value of evil acts” (NF 1876 19[34]). “All ‘evil’ acts are motivated by the drive to preservation or, more exactly, by the individual’s intention of procuring pleasure and avoiding displeasure; so motivated, however, they are not evil” (HAH 99). Matters usually described as being “evil” are in fact entirely natural and therefore not evil (“Egoism is not evil, because the idea of one’s ‘neighbour’ . . . is very weak in us”: HAH 101), and may even turn out to be good: “it is often in vices . . . that our good inclinations gather their springwater in order to break through more powerful” (NF 1876 18[18]). All “evil affects” are required for an individual to come into being (NF 1880 6[153]). And it may even be necessary for “mankind” and indeed for “humanity” that “evil tasks” are to be taken up: “the frightful energies – those which are called evil – are the cyclopean architects and road-makers of humanity” (HAH 246). And, as often, the ancient Greeks are for Nietzsche a case in point. This view on evil does have important implications for the philosopher himself: As Nietzsche points out, “he who became aware of how genius is produced, and desired to proceed in the manner in which nature usually does in this matter, would have to be exactly as evil and ruthless as nature is” (HAH 233). Or: the person looking for knowledge “should be like nature, neither good nor evil” (NF 1876 17[100]; also see HAH 56). This raises of course the question what this “should” could mean if there is no longer any good or any evil. There is a prima facie contradiction here since Nietzsche rejects all moral values as false in some sense, yet he seems nevertheless still to be able to pronounce value judgments himself. The task to account for this prima facie contradiction will reverberate in the further development of Nietzsche’s thought. For these moral values, fictitious as they may be, do in fact exist as judgments. At a specific point in time, specific actions have for specific reasons been called “good” and others “evil.” These designations, false as they may be from a metaphysical point of view, have nevertheless become both prevalent and self-evident: how is this possible? A presentation of Nietzsche’s answer to this question requires a description and some further analysis of the next phase of his thinking.

Diagnosis of the moral interpretation In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche writes: “we do not accuse nature of immorality when it sends us a thunderstorm and makes us wet; why do we call the harmful man immoral?” (HAH 102). This formulation not only harbors criticism in the form of a rhetorical question but also presents a real question, or even the declaration of the research question of the period


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to follow: if the notion of evil (and more broadly, the distinction between good and evil) is not founded in some metaphysical reality, where does it come from? Nietzsche answers that question in many ways, which may be characterized as being psychological (what motivates the moral judgment?), sociological (in what kind of communities do they arise and what social function do they fulfill?), historical (which development does it form part of?), and philosophical (what does it presuppose?) in nature. We must of course understand each of these disciplines in a Nietzschean manner, the one never sharply distinguished from the other. Eventually all of these approaches will converge in what he designates (from 1887 onwards) as his project of a “genealogy of morals” (GM), which the next section will take up. There we will find that Nietzsche makes more explicit and elaborates on an important aspect that in his analyses of the provenance of good and evil to which we turn now remains by and large implicit. Evil again receives most of the attention, although it cannot be separated from the moral distinction within which it is the opposite of the good. In a note, Nietzsche writes that “when the satisfaction of a drive is always connected with a feeling of prohibition and with anxiety, an aversion will be bred against it: we from now on consider it to be evil” (NF 1880 6[204]). The question to be answered is how this connection of a drive with prohibition and anxiety is produced. From the start, and certainly from his first aphoristic work (Human, All Too Human) onward, Nietzsche sketches all kinds of hypotheses for a psychological explanation for the genesis of the moral fiction. People label as “evil” that which is “incalculable” (NF 1880 4[122]), which is strange (NF 1880 4[147]) and “capricious” (D 17). The moral interpretation is used to try and get a hold on that which escapes this control, thereby causing discomfort. By calling it “evil” it becomes something that should not be there at all: “evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation” (GS 338). From the perspective of a “religion of comfortableness” personal suffering is also described “as a defect of existence” (ibid.) and personal desires only become “evil lusts” if looked at “from a Christian predisposition” (NF 1880 7[184]). Nietzsche reads Herbert Spencer and experiments with his utilitarian accounts for the moral distinction, which he sometimes seems to copy (for example in Dawn 102: “what harms me is something evil (harmful in itself); what is useful to me is something good (beneficent and advantageous in itself)”) or incorporate into his own hypothesis (see HAH 39), but he will later repudiate this account because he picks up on a justification of morality in it (see GS 4, GM I.1). Nietzsche’s analyses on the other hand are not aimed at a justification of morality, and instead tend to abolish the moral distinction: “our benevolence, pity, sacrifice, our morality rests on the very same foundation of deceit and disguise as our evil and egoism. This must be shown!” (NF 1880 6[274]). The philosophical analyses of the presuppositions on which the moral distinction rests confirm that we are dealing with deceit. The connection with primary drives like the drive for preservation have already made clear that there is no free will to speak of. “The evil acts . . . rest on the error that he who perpetrates them against us possesses free will, that is to say, that he could have chosen not to cause us this harm” (HAH 99). But fictions like freedom and responsibility are themselves motivated by drives that are precisely in conflict with morality: we “invent” these fictions because they enable us to take revenge on those who harm us. The man who experiences failure prefers to attribute this failure to the ill-will of another rather than to chance. His incensed feelings are relieved if he imagines a person, and not a thing, to be the cause of his failure; for one can revenge oneself on people, while the iniquities of chance must be swallowed down. (HAH 370) 138

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It is these kinds of analyses that elucidate what Nietzsche means when he writes that “every good originated out of an evil” (NF 1882 1[62]). The criticism is still clearer in his sociological hypotheses, which designate evil as that which goes against the “laws of custom” (HAH 96). The power of normality enforces itself by virtue of the moral distinction, aided by metaphysics and religion (see HAH 141). This causes that which is in fact individual and free to be condemned as evil, causing the “rarer, choicer, more original spirits” to suffer as a result: “[u]nder the dominion of the morality of custom, originality of every kind has acquired a bad conscience” (D 9). Here it becomes clear that the moral distinction allows a certain group, namely the masses or the herd, to enforce its power at the expense of the individual, which in turn allows the terms “good” and “evil” to have different meanings inside and out of the dominant group. Nietzsche will elaborate on that in his later genealogy of morals (see below). The prevalent interpretation mirrors the interests of the prevailing group, which is in fact “the egoism of the herd” (NF 1884 25[495]). Nietzsche does not only, and perhaps not even in the first place, criticize that interpretation, but also and especially criticizes the fact that it self-evidently prevails as the only interpretation: “plainly, one now knows in Europe what Socrates thought he did not know and what that famous old serpent once promised to teach – today one ‘knows’ what is good and evil” (BGE 202). In opposition to this, he attempts to show how that which now self-evidently prevails is in fact the product of a historical development, and thus liable to change. Outlines for such a “history of moral sensations” can be found from his earliest aphoristic texts (see HAH 39), always suggesting that these may eventually lead to an “overcoming of morality” and at least to an overcoming of the (prevailing) moral distinction: “beyond good and evil” (BGE 32).

A different interpretation An important new device for Nietzsche’s criticism of the prevailing interpretation of the moral distinction between good and evil is his construction of a different interpretation. The fact that certain people, communities, and cultures seek to sustain themselves and preserve their power by calling certain things good and others bad portrays a certain element of those people, communities, and cultures. But it does not mean that the manner in which they fashion the distinction is valid for other times or other kinds of people. Nietzsche criticizes other historians and psychologists of morality for making the same mistake as moral philosophers have hitherto done: they overlook the actual problem of morality because they remain within the belief in the prevailing morality (BGE 186 and GM I.1–3). What they label as a scientific study of morality is in fact an expression of that same morality, failing to see that it is “merely one type of human morality beside which, before which and after which many other types, above all higher moralities, are or ought to be, possible” (BGE 202). Nietzsche’s evocation of such a different morality receives its most definite form in his construction of the so-called master morality, which contrary to the prevailing morality does not distinguish between “good and evil” but between “good and bad.” But already long before he develops this thought in On the Genealogy of Morals we find Nietzsche looking for a different interpretation of morality. As early as Human, All Too Human he mentions the “twofold prehistory of good and evil” (HAH 45) and posits that “higher and deeper conceptions of good and evil” exist (HAH 56). In an elementary economy of power the strength of the one is the weakness of the other, which allows for a situation where “man possesses the feeling of power he feels and calls himself good: and it is precisely then that the others upon whom he has to discharge his power feel and call him evil!” (D 189). This is where Nietzsche distinguishes between “[t]he evil of the strong” and “the evil of the weak” (D 371). In this way different meanings of good and 139

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evil are quickly associated with a difference in strength or in power: “[t]he excess of strength seeks conflict and thus becomes evil; this evil, however, is merely instrumental and therefore much less harmful in comparison to the weak, who are evil in order to inflict damage” (NF 1880 3[114]). This distinction between “the strong evil ones and the weak evil ones” (“die starken Bösen und die schwachen Bösen”: NF 1882 1[35]) is developed from Beyond Good and Evil and particularly in the Genealogy of Morals, with the aid of the distinction between (good and) evil on the one hand and (good and) bad on the other; between “(gut und) böse” and “(gut und) schlecht” in German.1 Where the latter term belongs in the morality of the strong or “master morality,” the former is a part of “slave morality” (BGE 260). Nietzsche postulates that the strong first called themselves “good” as an expression of their self-sufficiency. Those whom they subjugated counted as “bad.” The German “schlecht” is etymologically related to “slicht,” meaning “common, plebeian, low” (GM I.4). Therefore “bad” does not so much express a judgment as it expresses disdain and distancing: “[I]t should be noted immediately that in this first type of morality the opposition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ means approximately the same as ‘noble’ and ‘contemptible’: – The opposition of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ has a different origin.” (BGE 260, translation adjusted; PvT). Those that were weak and suffering under the oppression of the strong sought to free themselves by the only means available to them: the imagination. They took imaginary revenge on their oppressors by condemning them as “evil”: “an act of the most spiritual revenge” (GM I.7). In turn, they could call themselves “good,” in opposition to these evil strong ones. This “bad” of noble origin and that “evil” out of the cauldron of unsatisfied hatred – the former an after-production, a side issue, a contrasting shade, the latter on the contrary the original thing, the beginning, the distinctive deed in the conception of a slave morality – how different these words “bad” and “evil” are, although they are both apparently the opposite of the same concept “good.” (GM I.11) Aside from the differing meanings of “schlecht” (insignificant) and “böse” (malignant), it is also of importance that, for the strong, “good” is the first term of the distinction, where it is secondary for the weak. For the strong, the evaluative distinction begins with affirmation (of themselves), where it stems from a condemnation (of the other) for the weak: “[w]hile every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside’, what is ‘different’, what is ‘not itself”” (GM I.9). Nietzsche’s formulation of his hypotheses in On the Genealogy of Morals is highly polemical (the book’s subtitle identifies it as “a polemic”). He describes the two types of morality as being in conflict with each other. “The two opposing values ‘good and bad’, ‘good and evil’ have been engaged in a fearful struggle on earth for thousands of years” (GM I. 16). Nietzsche thinks the slaves could in the end carry themselves through and it is they who have gained the power: the people have won – or ‘the slaves’ or ‘the mob’ or ‘the herd’ or whatever you like to call them. . . . The masters have been disposed of; the morality of the common man has won. One may conceive of this victory as at the same time a blood-poisoning . . . – I shan’t contradict; but this intoxication has undoubtedly been successful. (GM I.9) This victory was made possible through the mediation of the “priest,” who succeeded in mobilizing the ressentiment of the herd (GM I.6,7 en 10).2 140

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But Nietzsche is not only delineating a scene of battle; he is himself actively engaged, energetically fighting against the prevailing interpretation of the time: [w]as that the end of it? Had that greatest of all conflicts of ideals been placed ad acta for all time? Or only adjourned, indefinitely adjourned? . . . Must the ancient fire not some day flare up much more terribly, after much longer preparation? More: must one not desire it with all one’s might? even will it? even promote it? And he assumes that: it has long since been abundantly clear what my aim is, what the aim of that dangerous slogan is that is inscribed at the head of my last book Beyond Good and Evil. – At least this does not mean “Beyond Good and Bad.” – – (GM I.17 translation adjusted; PvT) We can now take a more detailed look at the reasons for his critique of the moral (or slave morality’s) distinction and the meaning of evil within it.

Critique We can distinguish two strands within Nietzsche’s critique of the moral (or slave morality’s) distinction of evil: a theoretical, epistemological strand that seeks to show that that interpretation does not correspond to reality, and a practical, normative critique showing that it is moreover disadvantageous or even harmful for human development. In 1876 Nietzsche already wrote that “being honest, even where evil is concerned, is better than losing oneself in traditional morality” (WB 11), which is repeated practically verbatim in 1882 (GS 99). The prevailing morality should not hinder knowledge. On the contrary, we should be wary of that morality making itself master of our interpretations too easily. When we try to understand nature, and that includes human nature, we should actually try to “be like nature, i.e. neither good nor evil” (NF 1876 18[58]). After stating, in Human All Too Human 28, “that these concepts ‘good’ and ‘evil’ possess meaning only when applied to men,” Nietzsche adds that they “perhaps even here are, as they are usually employed, unjustified.” At times Nietzsche seems to conclude from this that we should describe nature separate from any moral valuation, but it more often leads him to a different conclusion. For it would be an equally poor representation of reality to deny these factual evaluations, not only because they factually exist but also because humans are simply evaluating animals, even “the evaluating animal as such” (GM II.8), and Nietzsche the author is no exception to this. We will see how his description becomes tangled up in an evaluation. Nietzsche will in the first place analyze both that which is called “good” and what is called “evil” and seek to understand why value is attributed in the way it is. Because what is called evil is often swept under the carpet, he will proceed to pay special attention to it. It might be called the core motivation of Nietzsche’s thoughts on evil, that he is after “a greater honesty in the effort to make the evil characteristics come to light” (NF 1880 3[6]). It might seem difficult to combine this “honesty” with a peculiar characteristic of Nietzsche’s work on evil that has often lead to misinterpretations and an unmerited criticism: on the one hand he seems to adopt the utilitarian hypotheses on the genesis of moral evaluations (see above) but on the other hand he seems to criticize them. To explain this we have to recall the way he distinguishes between different types of morality as we saw in the previous section. The reason 141

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for his paradoxical combination of criticism and adoption of utilitarian hypotheses lies after all in the fact that he understands the evaluation from the perspective of the type of person making it. What is thought useful to one kind of person does not necessarily make it advantageous for the other. And because Nietzsche, as we have seen, himself chooses a side in the battle of morals, he is both able to criticize a normative discourse that does not recognize itself as partial while engaging in normative discourse himself. Whosoever immediately labels “every natural inclination” as a “sickness,” whoever posits “that man’s inclinations and instincts are evil” commits a “great injustice against our nature, against all nature” (GS 294). This brings us to the second strand of Nietzsche’s criticism: the practical normative strand. The slave morality interpretation, which sees nature as evil, is not only false when it identifies nature with its interpretation thereof, but is also harmful to and dangerous for the development of that nature. After all, the condemnation of evil is effective, however unjust it may be. It frustrates the expression of what presents itself from out of nature. And the continual frustration of a powerful striving makes a person malicious (WB 2). This goes for the pessimistic expectation (the person “who always expects the worse, will become evil, hostile, suspicious, agitated; that is the result of pessimistic ways of thinking” NF 1880 3[46]), but even more so for the moral judgment that makes humankind responsible for its own failing: “[h]ow evil mankind made itself by ascribing its lack of ability to its will” (NF 1880 3[127]). And it goes most strongly for the moral condemnation of personal desire. That desire becomes evil because it is condemned: “the pest of passion is not that troublesome if one does not consider it evil: just as the movement of the bowels fails to thrust us into an existential crisis” (NF 1880 7[8]). “To think a thing evil means to make it evil” (D 76). The “evil eye” of moralists like St. Paul is aimed at the “annihilation of the passions” and causes humans to be angry and unhappy (GS 139). Nietzsche does not only criticize the repression of passions because repression causes them to become painful and malicious. With his “evil wisdom” (NF 1883 12[1]), he will also praise the most strongly condemned desires as being good, because “[e]vil must be preserved” (NF 1882 1[48]), i.e., what is – undeservedly – called “evil,” but in fact is natural force and creativity, must be salvaged from annihilation through moral condemnation. Zarathustra’s speech “on the three evils” is the most elaborate version of this: What are the three best cursed things in the world? I shall put them on the scales. Sex, the lust to rule, selfishness: these three have so far been best cursed and worst reputed and lied about; these three I will weigh humanly well. . . . Sex: for the rabble, the slow fire on which they are burned; for all worm-eaten wood and all stinking rags, the ever-ready rut and oven. Sex: for free hearts, innocent and free, the garden happiness of the earth, the future’s exuberant gratitude to the present. . . . The lust to rule – but who would call it lust when what is high longs downward for power? . . . oh, who were to find the right name for such longing? “Gift-giving virtue” – thus Zarathustra once named the unnamable. And at that time it also happened – and verily it happened for the first time – that his word pronounced selfishness blessed, the wholesome, healthy selfishness that wells from a powerful soul – from a powerful soul to which belongs the high body, beautiful, triumphant, refreshing, around which everything becomes a mirror. . . . The self enjoyment of such bodies and souls calls itself “virtue.” (Z III Evils) The condemned passions may be evil for the weak and for the herd, but they are virtues for the strong individual (“in order for the individual to appear splendidly, all evil affects must be there” 142

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NF 1880 6[153]). One must be strong enough to be able to enjoy one’s natural desires without being corrupted by them. These passions are moreover desperately needed in battle against the prevailing morality and its dominion. For “whoever must be a creator in good and evil, verily, he must be an annihilator and break values. Thus the highest evil belongs to the highest goodness: but this is creative” (Z II Self-Overcoming). According to Nietzsche destruction is the necessary complement of creation. And “[t]he evil ones are venerable as destroyers, for destruction is necessary” (NF 1883 16[84]).

An alternative ideal and the trouble of realizing it Nietzsche’s criticism of the morality of good and evil is guided by an ideal of liberation: to free humankind of its bad conscience (D 148), of its shame for its own evil (NF 1882 4[56]) and of the disastrous consequences they have. And by its liberation nature too will be set free (Z III Evils). This liberation is to bring us “beyond good and evil,” or “at least a point beyond our good and evil” (GS 380). Difficult as this already may be, this perspective “beyond good and evil” is subsequently the condition of possibility and preparation for a view on the actual ideal: the ideal of the most high-spirited, alive, and world-affirming human being who has not only come to terms and learned to get along with whatever was and is, but who wants to have what was and is repeated into all eternity (BGE 56) Nietzsche is not so much describing an ideal that he knows already, let alone presenting it in terms that are easily understandable to everyone, but he is rather pointing at something that he is hoping for without even knowing exactly what it is himself. It is therefore no accident that it is primarily the fictional figure of Zarathustra who is initially staged as this liberator (see Z I Passions, Z I Criminal and many other places), where Dionysus fulfills this role later on. As Zarathustra did earlier on (NF 1883 17[13], Z III Convalescent 2), Dionysus later becomes the one to try and make humans “more evil” (“böser”): “I often reflect how I might yet advance him and make him stronger, more evil, and more profound than he is.” “Stronger, more evil and more profound?” I asked startled. “Yes,” he said once more; “stronger, more evil, and more profound; also more beautiful” – and at that the tempter god smiled. (BGE 295) Both in his thesis that good and evil are not given in nature but exist only as human interpretations and in his ideal of total affirmation, Nietzsche feels akin to both Heraclites and Spinoza. According to Wulf (1999, p. 360), this affirmation of life is a radical aestheticizing. Thomas Mann was one of the first to confront Nietzsche’s ideas on evil with the holocaust, dismissing them as misplaced romanticizing (Niemeyer 2009; cf. Visser 2012 for a more constructive confrontation between Nietzsche’s thoughts and the evil of the holocaust). Goedert (1981) points out the danger Nietzsche’s thought on evil runs to be taken up in an elitist ideology. The fact that the ideal is represented by fictional figures such as Zarathustra and Dionysus has to do with a problem that becomes increasingly clear to Nietzsche. He has distinguished the evaluation of the slaves from that of the masters, and he is anticipating new life-affirming values, but he sees ever clearer how hard it is to prevent the nihilistic tendency of traditional 143

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morality, which consists of denying, ignoring, and annihilating real, actual life, from returning in this new evaluation: Once one has developed a keen eye for the symptoms of decline, one understands morality, too – one understands what is hided under its most sacred names and value formulas: impoverished life, the will to the end, the great weariness. Morality negates life. (WA, preface) But it is not easy to get rid of this seductive Circe (see D, Preface 3). If morality is harmful to a thriving life because it denies natural reality on behalf of an ideal, how could new values avoid doing the same? Nietzsche himself wonders whether or not his critique of morality did not “simply carr[y] the contempt for man one step further” (GS 346). How does one prevent the new evaluation from being nihilistic once more? Amongst other things, Nietzsche will formulate his ideal as a total affirmation, condemning nothing. But is the detachment of good and evil not the ideal of Buddhism too (NF 1887 10[190]), a straightforwardly nihilistic religion according to Nietzsche? He even finds the figure of Jesus to be reminiscent of an ideal that is almost identical to what he himself strives for: “no longer resisting anyone or anything, neither the evil nor the evil-doer – love as the sole, as the last possibility of life” (AC 30); “[n]ot to defend oneself, not to grow angry, not to make responsible . . . But not to resist even the evil man – to love him. . .” (AC 35). Is Nietzsche’s ideal of total affirmation not once more an “ascetic ideal,” the concept at the hand of which he analyses nihilism in the third essay of On the Genealogy of Morals? Nietzsche seems to become increasingly aware of this problem himself: “Beyond Good and Evil: these things spell trouble” (NF 1885 1[211]). One the one hand, this leads to a type of humility. In the third part of the book that bears his name, Zarathustra discovers that he too must still learn to free himself of it (see Z III Vision, Gravity, Convalescent), and one might question the extent to which he manages to do so. Nietzsche himself writes in a note that “I only imagined to get beyond good and evil” (NF 1882 6[1], my italics PvT). It is not without reason that the book that bears that last expression as its title is but a “prelude to a philosophy of the future” (BGE, my italics PvT). In one of the strongest expressions of Nietzsche’s ideal of total affirmation, it simultaneously becomes clear how far he is still removed from it: I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And allin-all on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer. (GS 276) “Some day,” which is to say: not for a while. The rift between this “some day” and the present situation, on the other hand, leads to an extreme aggression. In one of his final texts, The Anti-Christ, he appears to identify Christianity with the morality of good and evil, and combats it with the fiercest of expressions: morality as a fundamental degradation of the imagination, as an “evil eye” for all things. What is Jewish, what is Christian morality? Chance robbed of its innocence; misfortune dirtied by the concept “sin”; well-being as a danger, as “temptation”; physiological indisposition poisoned by the worm of conscience. (AC 25) 144

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Extreme aggression and humility, scathing criticism and total affirmation: how can these be reconciled? A note from 1888, titled “on the asceticism of the strong,” may provide us with a suggestion: [s]tep by step learn to find one’s way to the “Beyond Good and Evil”. First step: to endure cruelties / to commit atrocities / Second step, more difficult: endure disgusting things / commit disgusting things: including as preliminary practice: become ridiculous, making oneself ridiculous. (NF 1888 15[117]) Notes like these do not solve the problems of Nietzsche’s thoughts on morality, but indicate that he himself was very much aware of these problems. And what they do make clear is that we cannot simply evaluate his thoughts on the basis of the morality he is criticizing.

Conclusion In conclusion we may establish that there is much continuity in the manner in which Nietzsche’s engagement with the theme of evil is developed. Good and evil are human interpretations of something that is of itself neither good nor evil. In the first place, this interpretation provides insight into the kind of person providing it. From the outset Nietzsche is interested in the question of where the prevailing interpretation originates from and how it could become so domineering. In order to answer that question he positions himself outside of that morality for as much as is possible. Starting from the ideals of the prevailing morality (equality, charity, compassion) he determines the needs of those who have shaped it. What the weak call evil is that which they deem harmful or experience as painful. Their judging it to be evil is a condemnation aimed at exterminating or destroying it. This holds both of the evil threatening them from within (the strong urges and desires) as for that which comes from outside (those ruling over them). Both because of the fact that this morality rules solely and self-evidently and because of its destructive effect on strong instincts and character, Nietzsche combats this interpretation of the moral distinction by placing against it a different one. His battle with this morality generates the problem of his seeking to develop an affirming stance on the one hand, while vigorously attacking that morality on the other. While new aspects appear in the course of the development of his thought, they don’t significantly alter the structure of the argument. His polemic becomes fiercer to the extent that he focuses more narrowly on the self-evident rule of the one type of morality. His criticism of the utilitarian explanations of morality he had himself previously adhered to relates to the distinction between two kinds of people (masters and slaves), causing what is useful for the one to be extremely detrimental to the other. And his critique of the prevailing moral distinction becomes ever more problematized in the course of Nietzsche’s discovering that the structure of nihilism (the judgment of factual reality in the name of an ideal) threatens to impose itself on his own evaluations too. A good understanding of Nietzsche’s texts on (good and) evil is impeded by his speaking “meta-ethically” on the emerging, developing and functioning of the moral distinction on the one hand (they inspired Michel Foucault to perform his own analyses of the mental institutions, prison, and sexuality), while on the other he engages “ethically” with an evaluation different to the one that came to expression in the moral distinction. The term “evil” sometimes designates that which is condemned in the analyzed and criticized morality (pain, cruelty, discomfort), but can also refer to Nietzsche own self-effacing critique thereof (his “böser Blick” or “böse Weisheit”), which condemns precisely the condemnation and seeks to positively reevaluate evil. 145

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He moreover criticizes the prevailing interpretation with arguments that appear to hold ground against his own interpretation too. When he combats the prevailing morality by showing it “merely” to be an interpretation, this threatens to undermine his appeal to nature when he argues for his own interpretation. Nietzsche refutes that criticism, as is well known, in Beyond Good and Evil 22, after having there described nature as will to power: “[supposing] this is also interpretation – and you will be eager enough to make this objection? – well, so much the better.” Because such interpretations are themselves expressions of will to power, for that reason always to be in conflict with each other, Nietzsche’s own text must always be read as polemic, even when this is not explicitly stated. But the dynamic of the polemic also makes clear that the nihilist tendency of the prevailing morality may easily slip back into any critique thereof. This discovery comes to expression in the ever more prominent self-referentiality of Nietzsche’s thought (see Van Tongeren 2018).

Notes 1 Nietzsche only differentiates between the terms “böse” and “schlecht” from 1883 onwards: “[t]o be distinguished: bad (contemptible) and evil” (NF 1883 7[69]). Until that time, he uses the terms more or less synonymously. In 1882, for example, he still writes that “when we link the harmful with horror and disgust, the feeling evil, bad emerges” (NF 1882 4[135], italics added; see also HAH 141 and WS 285). 2 The identification of the role of priests is related to the fact that Nietzsche connects the slave revolution in morality with the introduction of Judaism and Christianity into European culture: “the Jews, that priestly people, who in opposing their enemies and conquerors were ultimately satisfied with nothing less than a radical revaluation of their enemies’ values” (GM I.17). Nietzsche, in his critique of the Jews, seems coincidentally to mainly have Christianity in mind (see GM I.17: “Which of them has won for the present, Rome or Judea? But there can be no doubt: . . . three Jews, as is known, and one Jewess (Jesus of Nazareth, the fisherman Peter, the rug weaver Paul, and the mother of the aforementioned Jesus, named Mary”). Consequently, his critique of the prevailing morality and its notion of “evil” becomes ever more entwined with his critique of Christianity (see, e.g., M 68) until it eventually coincides with it (AC).

References Primary sources: Nietzsche’s writings Nietzsche’s published texts have been cited according to the English translations of the editions listed below. I have made slight adjustments to these translations on one or two occasions. The quotations from the unpublished notes (NF, for Nachgelassene Fragmente) have been taken from the Kritische Studienausgabe: I have translated them myself. The sigla provide an abbreviation of the book’s title, and the relevant part or chapter therein and the number of the section of the note where applicable, or, in the case of the unpublished notes, the year and fragment number. The index of the texts consulted is listed alphabetically according to the sigla. (AC)  The Anti-Christ, in: F. Nietzsche, Twilight of The Idols / The Anti-Christ, translated by R. Hollingdale. London: Penguin, 1990. (AOM) “Assorted Opinions and Maxims,” in: F. Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits [HAH], Part II, pp. 215–99. (BGE)  Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, translated by W. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1966. (D)  Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, translated by R. Hollingdale. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. (EH)  Ecce Homo, translated by W. Kaufmann and R. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, 1969.


Nietzsche’s critique of morality (GM)  On the Genealogy of Morals, translated by W. Kaufmann and R. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, 1969. (GS)  The Gay Science, translated by W. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1974. (HAH)  Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, translated by R. Hollingdale. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986a. (NF)  Nachgelassene Fragmente. Kritische Studienausgabe. Munich and Berlin: dtv/de Gruyter, 1980, Vol. 7–13. (WA)  The Case of Wagner, in: F. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, translated by W. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967. (WB)  “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth,” in: F. Nietzsche, Unfashionable Observations, translated by Richard T. Gray. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995, pp. 257–331. (WS) “The Wanderer and His Shadow,” in: F Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits [HAH], Part II, pp. 301–95. (Z)  Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in: The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by W. Kaufmann, New York: Penguin, 1968, pp.103–439.

Other references Conway, Daniel (2008) Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality. A Reader’s Guide, London: Continuum. Georges Goedert (1981) “Zur Notwendigkeit des Bösen in Nietzsches Projekt vom Übermenschen,” in: Perspektiven der Philosophie 1981, pp. 89–101. Janaway, Christopher (2007) Beyond Selflessness. Reading Nietzsche’s Genealogy, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hatab, Lawrence J. (2008) Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality. An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Leiter, B. (2002) Nietzsche on Morality, London and New York: Routledge. Niemeyer, Chr. (2009) “das Böse,” in: Chr. Niemeyer (Hrsg.), Nietzsche-Lexikon, Darmstadt: Wissen­ schaftliche Buchgesellschaft. Owen, David (2007) Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality, Stocksfield: Acumen. Schulte, C. (1988) radikal böse. Die Karriere des Bösen von Kant bis Nietzsche, Munich: Fink. Stegmaier, W. (1994) Nietzsches “Genealogie der Moral,” Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. Van Tongeren, Paul (2018), Friedrich Nietzsche and European Nihilism, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars. Visser, Gerard (2012) “Het kwaad als moreel verzinsel,” in: G. Visser, In gesprek met Nietzsche, Nijmegen: Vantilt 2012, pp. 215–36. Wulf, C. (1999) “Das Böse im Denken Nietzsches,” in: A. Schirmer and R. Schmidt (Hg.), Entdecken und Verraten. Zu Leben und Werk Friedrich Nietzsches, Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, pp. 353–60.


11 HANNAH ARENDT’S DOUBLE ACCOUNT OF EVIL Political superfluousness and moral thoughtlessness Peg Birmingham the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe—as death became the fundamental problem after the last war. (Arendt 1994: 134)

Hannah Arendt’s thought seemingly provides two different accounts of evil. In her seminal work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, she claims that evil is radical, tied to the systematic production of superfluousness, while in Eichmann in Jerusalem she claims that evil is banal, emerging out of the thoughtlessness of its perpetrators. On the face of it, these two accounts seem very different and impossible to hold together in one coherent account of evil. Arendt herself suggests that she did not hold the two accounts together, but instead moved from her initial claim of evil’s radicalness to her later claim of its banality. Arendt’s response to Gershom Scholem, who was highly critical of her notion of the banality of evil, supports the view that she rethought her notion of evil: You are quite right: I changed my mind and do no longer speak of “radical evil.” . . . It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension.1 (Arendt 2007: 470–71) Arendt’s reply to Scholem, however, is nuanced and does not indicate a simple reversal of her initial position on the nature of evil. While Arendt gives up the language of radical evil insofar as it is neither demonic nor deep, she never changes her mind that evil is extreme and is tied to the systematic political production of superfluousness. Still further, Arendt augments her initial account of extreme evil with her later account of evil’s banality, thereby giving a double account of evil. This double account of evil claims that the political evil of producing worldly superfluousness is inseparably bound to the moral evil of Eichmann’s thoughtless voice of conscience. More precisely, Arendt’s double account of evil claims that banal perpetrators are themselves produced by the radical evil of superfluousness. In what follows, I first take up Arendt’s discussion of radical evil in Origins of Totalitarianism, arguing that Arendt provides a genealogy of the political-economic production of superfluousness 148

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that begins at the outset of modernity and finds its extreme form in the Nazis’ death camps. In the second part of the chapter, I turn to Arendt’s account of Eichmann’s reversal of moral conscience, a reversal that accounts for his thoughtless banality. I argue that his thoughtless banality emerges from the political-economic production of superfluousness. As just stated, Arendt’s double account of evil reveals that political-economic superfluousness is the condition for Eichmann’s moral thoughtlessness. In conclusion, I argue that this inseparability of superfluousness and banality is the reason why Arendt argues that extreme evil was not defeated with the defeat of totalitarianism and continues to be the fundamental problem of our age.

Radical evil and the systematic production of superfluousness At the conclusion of Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt writes, We may say that radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous. . . . The danger of the corpse factories and holes of oblivion is that today, with populations and homelessness everywhere on the increase, masses of people are continuously rendered superfluous if we continue to think the world in utilitarian terms. (Arendt 1951: 459) She goes on to note, “Factories of annihilation . . . demonstrate the swiftest solution to the problem of overpopulation, of economically superfluous and socially rootless human masses, and are as much of an attraction as a warning” (Arendt 1951: 459). While it might be comforting to think that Arendt is describing the systematic production of superfluousness of the death camps, she allows for no such comfort. The death camps were the final step of a genealogy of superfluousness that: owes its start to a monstrous process of expropriation such as has never occurred before in history in this form—that is, without military conquest. Expropriation, the initial accumulation of capital—that was the law according to which capitalism arose and according to which it has advanced step by step. (Arendt 1969: 211) Importantly, Arendt argues that the law of expropriation not only marks the beginning of the “monstrous process of accumulation” (Arendt 1969: 211) but continues to animate the process as it picks up increasing force with the political emancipation of the bourgeoisie, whose desire for unlimited acquisition and accumulation moves imperialist politics from the nation-state to the global stage, a move in which the economically superfluous within the nation-state align themselves with the very capitalist forces that created them, the alliance producing thousands of politically and economically superfluous human beings globally. Before proceeding further, we need to linger over two important points regarding Arendt’s account of radical evil. First, her account of the production of superfluousness is genealogical, not causal. While her account moves from the imperialist production of superfluousness in which “all is permitted” to its totalitarian production in the death camps in which “everything is possible,” no causal necessity links imperialism and totalitarianism. Instead, the imperialist production of economic and political superfluousness is one of the elements that crystallizes in the event of totalitarianism and the perfect superfluousness of the death camps. That said, Arendt claims that, without imperialism’s claim to world politics, “the totalitarian claim to 149

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global rule would not have made sense” (Arendt 1951: 164). We can add that without imperialism’s unleashing of worldly superfluousness and its accompanying violence on the world stage the radical evil of totalitarian superfluousness would not have attempted a global foothold. Second, it is important to keep in mind Arendt’s distinction between the political and the moral. Her claim that radical evil is inseparable from the emergence of imperialism and global politics indicates that for her radical evil is a political rather than a moral phenomenon. While Arendt does not argue for a strict separation of the two spheres (as we will see in our analysis of Eichmann and the problem of conscience), nevertheless, she insists on their distinction. The concern of the moral sphere, she argues, is a concern with the self, a concern for one’s individual conscience and its voice that tells one “not to do anything that you will not be able to live with.” Somewhat idiosyncratically, Arendt claims that morality’s concern is unworldly: conscience is unpolitical. It is not primarily interested in the world where the wrong is committed or in the consequences that the wrong will have for the future course of the world. It does not say, with Jefferson, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” (Arendt 1969: 61) By contrast, the concern of politics is for the world and not the individual self. Faced with the injustice of slavery, Jefferson trembles for his country, not for his own conscience. A political wrong, she argues, is committed against the world and the possibility of its future endurance. Arendt’s double account of evil reveals that when the political concern is no longer with worldly endurance, as is the case with the political production of worldly superfluousness, the perversion of the moral voice of conscience follows, moving from a voice that cannot live with itself if it does evil to a voice that cannot live with itself if it does good. Turning then to imperialism’s production of superfluousness, Arendt begins with the emancipation of the bourgeoisie, which for her is a political event: “The central inner-European event of the imperialist period was the political emancipation of the bourgeoisie which up to then has been the first class in history to achieve economic pre-eminence without aspiring to political rule” (Arendt 1951: 123). To be sure, on her reading, the bourgeoisie did not turn to political interests out of a concern with politics but instead: turned to politics out of economic necessity; for if it did not want to give up the capitalist system whose inherent law is constant economic growth, it had to impose this law upon its home governments and to proclaim expansion to be an ultimate political goal of foreign policy. (Arendt 1951: 123) At the same time, this new political principle of unlimited expansion requires that imperialism move beyond a politics of the body politic. As Arendt puts it, “What imperialists wanted was expansion of political power without the foundation of a body politics” (Arendt 1951: 181). World trade requires a global politics. Arendt cites Cecil Rhodes: “wake up to the fact that you cannot live unless you have the trade of the world,” “that your trade is the world, and your life is the world, and not England,” and therefore they “must deal with these questions of expansion and retention of the world.” (Arendt 1951: 178)


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Here again we must be cautious. Imperialism’s lack of foundation in the body politics of the nation-state did not create an apolitical space, nor did its disregard for the democratic principles of self-determination and the consent of the governed make it something other than political, although certainly, it was no longer the democratic politics of the nation-state. Still further, when Arendt writes, “The concept of unlimited expansion allowing for the unlimited accumulation of capital . . . cannot be the foundation of new political bodies which need a stabilizing force” (Arendt 1951; 137–8), she is not arguing that imperialism is apolitical; on the contrary, imperialism’s political aim is to move beyond the confines of the nation-state. Its aim is a “politics without a body,” if by the latter is meant a limited body politic comprised of a common tradition, language, and a body of stabilizing laws. Instead, imperialism’s explicit political aim is the inherent instability of the political. As Arendt points out, the laws of capitalism defy the traditional notion of law as boundary and limit; they introduce limitless and boundlessness into the laws themselves. The question then is whether a politics of unlimited expansion and boundlessness of the law ultimately destroys the political. Arendt’s discussion of radical evil that emerges from this politics suggests that the answer is in the affirmative. Arendt claims that Thomas Hobbes offers a political philosophy for the newly emergent bourgeois class and its expansive global politics. As she puts it, “[Hobbes] is the only great philosopher to whom the bourgeoisie can rightly and exclusively lay claim” (Arendt 1951: 139). Hobbes’s description of the human being with no free will, no capacity for thought, but only “reckoning with consequences” and absolved of all responsibility, is for her a description of this newly emancipated class, for whom everything is based on power. As Arendt points out, for Hobbes everything – whether in the form of knowledge or wealth – is reduced to power for the sake of power: “Therefore, if man is actually driven by nothing but his individual interests, desire for power must be the fundamental passion of man” (Arendt 1951: 139). The dignity of this person is his price, determined by his function and what he will be paid for by the use of his power; he has no intrinsic worth or dignity and it is the “the esteem of others that determines his price,” an esteem that is dependent on the law of supply and demand (Arendt 1951: 139). If dignity is determined by one’s function and the price paid for it, then those without function are superfluous, without dignity, and are owed no respect. It is not arbitrary that Arendt begins Origins with an account of how with the rise of capitalism the Jewish people lost their function as the “European element” within the nation-state and, therefore, became increasingly superfluous and increasingly susceptible to violence, especially when their loss of function was concomitant with their increasing racialization. Arendt argues that a political space animated by the principle of unlimited power and expansion is inherently violent: “Power left to itself can achieve nothing but more power, and violence administered for power’s (and not for the law’s) sake turns into a destructive principle that will not stop until there is nothing left to violate” (Arendt 1951: 137). Going further, she argues that the imperial state, based on this Hobbesian principle, acquires a monopoly in killing and provides in exchange a conditional guarantee against being killed. Security is provided by the law, which is a direct emanation from the power monopoly of the state. . . . And as this law flows directly from absolute power, it represents absolute necessity in the eyes of the individual who lives under it. (Arendt 1951: 139) The military and the police become the “functionaries of violence,” whose violence continually increases with an expanding sovereignty. Still further, the state now becomes the locus


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of “monopolized power” that demands absolute obedience. Arendt states that “[t]he blind conformism of bourgeois society” flows from this obedience to absolute power (Arendt 1951: 141). Linking “blind conformism” to the citizen’s required obedience to the absolute power of the state, Arendt is already anticipating her later thinking of the thoughtless obedience that marks Eichmann’s banality of evil. At the same time, absolute obedience to sovereignty, whose power takes the form of force, resolves the stability issue of an ever-expanding political space. In an important discussion of Hobbes in The Human Condition, Arendt elaborates on his attempt to stabilize an ever-expansive and destabilizing process of power and accumulation. Here she focuses on Hobbes’s separation of reason from the unpredictability of human affairs: The political philosophy of the modern age, whose greatest representative is still Hobbes, founders on the perplexity that modern rationalism is unreal and modern realism is irrational – which is only another way of saying that reality and human reason have parted company. (Arendt 1959: 300) Rather than locating reality in a common world, Arendt points out that Hobbes locates it in the interiority of the passions, which are “the same in every specimen of the species man-kind. Here again we find the image of the watch, this time applied to the human body and then used for the movements of the passions” (Arendt 1958: 299). The inherent disorderliness and unpredictability of the passions is made orderly and stabilized through the fabrication of the great machine, Leviathan, whose head (literally) is the absolute sovereign. The Hobbesian sovereign rules through the universal laws of reason that are now nothing other than the raison d’etre of the state. As Foucault points out, in a reading of the modern state very similar to Arendt’s, sovereign reason is no longer understood as a system of laws to which the just or rational state should adhere; instead, it is “the very being of the state and as such commands the law and suspends the law as is necessary” (Foucault 1976: 262). The antinomy between law and violence is dissolved. The sovereign machine can use both in the service of its paramount concern with the unceasing expansion of power and wealth. Hobbes’s stabilization of individual passions in the absolute will and reason of the sovereign with its force of necessity sets the stage for totalitarianism’s attempt through terror not just to stabilize but to eradicate altogether the human capacity of unpredictability. If Hobbes stabilizes unpredictability in the absolute sovereign, totalitarianism goes further, attempting to wipe unpredictability off the face of the Earth. At the same time, reason’s separation from the reality of human affairs is a key element at work in Eichmann’s remoteness from reality that marks his thoughtless banality. As noted earlier, Arendt argues that the law of expropriation, “the original sin of simple robbery (Marx) must be repeated again and again” (Arendt 1969: 211). Important is Arendt’s implicit claim that expropriation is more fundamental than exploitation in the unleashing of imperialist capital; it is the original sin or evil upon which other evils or sins follow. (Again, this is a political evil, unleashed upon the world by a new political-economic structure; it is not theological nor is it located in the depths of an individual soul.) In other words, exploitation is founded on the law of expropriation and its production of superfluousness. This production takes the form of surplus profit and surplus labor. As Marx points out, “The working population therefore produces both the accumulation of capital and the means by which it is itself made relatively superfluous and it does this to an extent which is always increasing” (Marx 1977: 783). In view of the violence that is to come, Marx aptly names this surplus population “the disposable industrial reserve army” (Marx 1977: 783, emphasis added). As Marx notes, this surplus population, both hopeless and stagnant, is “set free” to find another function. In Arendt’s 152

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analysis the new function is to become a functionary of violence in service to the capitalist forces that produced them. Rather than Marx’s emancipatory figure of the proletariat, this dark underbelly of capitalism was a superfluous stratum who bore a grudge against society that had no use for them and who had a great penchant for violence. Contrary to Marx, Arendt argues that the economically superfluous “could not be identified with the growing industrial working class” but instead “[were] the product of bourgeois society, directly produced by it and therefore never quite separable from it” (Arendt 1951: 189). Indeed, Arendt argues that this group did not want to leave bourgeois society, but instead “had been spat out by it . . . simply victims without use or function. Their only choice had been a negative one, a decision against the workers’ movements” (Arendt 1951: 189). For Arendt, this new alliance between superfluous labor and superfluous wealth was so contrary to Marx’s theory of class struggle that he completely overlooked it and thereby also overlooked “the actual dangers of the imperialist attempt—to divide mankind into master races and slave races, into higher and lower breeds, into colored peoples and white men” (Arendt 1951: 152). Armed with the doctrine of race, imperialism sent this superfluous population abroad where it carried out atrocities that in Arendt’s view provided the model that totalitarianism would emulate and surpass. Arriving in noncapitalist countries, the colonizing alliance between capital and its superfluous stratum expropriated not only land and natural resources but also the political and legal status of colonized subjects; indeed, it expropriated their very dignity as human beings. Again, this violent process of expropriation is the condition for the violent exploitation that follows.2 As just noted, the violent process of expropriation is driven by the ideology of racism, which Arendt claims has its roots in the race-thinking of the eighteenth century but which became a political and economic ideological weapon with the rise of imperialism and its colonization of the world. Noting the “inner contradiction” between on the one hand the nation-state principles of limited territory, equality, and the consent of the governed, and on the other imperialism’s principle of unlimited expansion that recognizes neither borders, equality, nor consent, Arendt asks, “Why did nationalism develop such a clear tendency toward imperialism?” (Arendt 1951: 152). She answers that the national body was “deeply split into classes, and the cohesion of the nation was jeopardized” (Arendt 1951: 152). Imperialism offered a solution insofar as unlimited expansion was something around which the nation could unite, especially as the unity was based not on class struggle, but the race factor. She points out that the nation-state’s emphasis on the homogeneity of the national will “favored the oppression of foreign people’s abroad.” Still further, Arendt argues that race-thinking was the “ever-present shadow” that haunted the nation-state from its inception: For the truth is that race-thinking entered the scene of active politics the moment the European peoples had prepared, and to a certain extent realized, the new body politic of the nation. . . . Race-thinking, rather than class-thinking, was the ever-present shadow accompanying the development of the comity of European nations, until it finally grew to be the powerful weapon for the destruction of those nations. (Arendt 1951:161) While race-thinking is the shadow that haunts the rise of the nation-state, Arendt argues that such thinking might well have “disappeared in due time together with other irresponsible opinions of the nineteenth century” (Arendt 1951: 183) if it had not been for the new era of imperialism, which, she argues, “would have necessitated the invention of racism as the only possible ‘explanation’ and excuse for its deeds” (Arendt 1951: 184). In other words, the sin of robbery 153

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required the additional sin of racism to keep it going and to legitimate its “destructive forces” (Arendt 1951: 184). Again, it is important to note that the “excuse” was ready to hand with the emergence of the modern nation-state and its notion of a homogeneous people that excluded all those who were foreign to the bounded national body. As noted at the outset, the conditions for radical evil include both economic and political superfluousness. Arendt argues that the Minority Treaties after World War I produced political superfluousness, whereby hundreds of thousands of stateless refugees were made politically superfluousness, outside of any legal or political protection. The Minority Treaties, Arendt argues, “said in plain language what until then had been only implied in the working system of nation-states, namely, that only nationals could be citizens, only people of the same national origin could enjoy the full protection of legal institutions” (Arendt 1951: 275). This last exposed the illusion of the universality of human rights. As Arendt puts it, “the arrival of the stateless people brought an end to this illusion” (Arendt 1951: 276). Only those who belonged to the unified, homogenous will of the nation had citizenship and therefore human rights. Lacking any protection under the auspices of human rights, Arendt traces the genealogy of the production of political superfluity – the complete loss of political status – through the loss of the right to asylum to the impossibility of repatriation or naturalization because neither the country of origin nor the country swamped with refugees wanted them and, finally, to the “sovereign insistence on the right to expulsion,” making statelessness an illegal act whose enforcement was turned over to the police” (Arendt 1951: 283). The refugees and stateless suffered a political expropriation as violent as the economic expropriation of the peasantry. As Arendt puts it: The calamity of the rightless is . . . that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever. Their plight is not that they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them; not that they are oppressed, but that no one wants even to oppress them. Only in the last stage of a rather lengthy process is their right to live threatened; only if they remain perfectly “superfluous” if nobody can be found to “claim” them, may their lives be in danger. (Arendt 1951: 295–6) Arendt’s words are chilling in light of the latest (2016) UN report on the number of forcefully displaced and politically superfluous stateless and refugees: 65.5 million, an unprecedented number that continues to increase. As stated at the outset, for Arendt the unprecedented production of economic and political superfluousness provided the key elements that crystallized in totalitarianism’s production of the “perfect superfluousness” at work in the radical evil of the death camps. Speaking of the concentration camps and the production of “living corpses” for the “mass manufacture of corpses,” she writes: [T]he silent consent to such unprecedented conditions are the products of those events which in a period of political disintegration suddenly and unexpectedly made hundreds of thousands of human beings homeless, stateless, outlawed and unwanted, while millions of human beings were made economically superfluous and socially burdensome by unemployment. (Arendt 1951: 447) Arendt’s genealogy chronicles three deaths that together produce “living corpses” and the radical evil of perfect superfluousness: the death of the juridical person, the death of the moral person, and, finally, the death of human uniqueness and individuality. 154

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The death of the juridical person occurs “by putting certain categories of people outside the protection of the law and forcing at the same time, through the instrument of denationalization, the nontotalitarian world into recognition of lawlessness” (Arendt 1951: 447). The last is essential for the death of the juridical person: the nontotalitarian world’s recognition of the sovereign right to suspend the law, including the suspension of citizenship, makes it complicit in the lawlessness that necessarily follows. At the same time, the death of the juridical person is produced by placing “the concentration camp outside the normal system, and by selecting its inmates outside the normal judicial procedure in which a definite crime entails a predictable penalty” (Arendt 1951: 447). Again, the destruction of a person’s rights and legal persona is the prerequisite for the production of perfect superfluity. The death of the moral person follows. Arendt understands this death as the “corruption of human solidarity” without which no protest against injustice is possible: “Here the night has fallen on the future. . . . To demonstrate when death can no longer be postponed is an attempt to give death a meaning, to act beyond one’s own death” (Arendt 1951: 451–2). The corruption of human solidarity makes sacrifices meaningless and death anonymous. With this death, two human conditions are destroyed: plurality, in which solidarity is rooted, and mortality, in which one’s death is one’s own. Speaking of the latter, Arendt writes: “In a sense they took away the individual’s own death, proving that henceforth nothing belonged to him and he belonged to no one. His death merely set a seal on the fact that he had never really existed” (Arendt 1951: 452). The production of perfect superfluousness is completed with the eradication of the uniqueness of the individuality. Here the production takes the form of terror combined with practices targeted to render unique embodied life superfluous: the shorn head, the prison uniform, the replacing of the individual’s name with a number. The killing of uniqueness is the killing of spontaneity, the power to begin something new: “Those who aspire to total domination must liquidate all spontaneity, such as the mere existence of individuality will always engender” (Arendt 1951: 456). Added to imperialism’s unlimited desire for power is the totalitarian desire for total domination, from “all is permitted” to “all is possible.” As Arendt argues, Such power can be secured if literally all men, without a single exception, are reliably dominated in every aspect of their life. In the realm of foreign affairs new neutral territories must constantly be subjugated, while at home ever-new human groups must be mastered in expanding concentration camps or, when circumstances require liquidated to make room for others. (Arendt 1951: 456) With the destruction of spontaneity, human beings are reduced to a set of mechanical reactions and with this perfect superfluousness is achieved: “Totalitarianism strives not toward despotic rule over men, but toward a system in which men are superfluous” (Arendt 1951: 457). Reducing human beings to nothing other than a set of mechanical reactions – terrorized marionettes – perfect superfluousness is the systematic attempt to eradicate altogether the conditions of human existence: natality and mortality, plurality and uniqueness. Arendt’s genealogy of the systematic production of superfluousness indicates that she did not change her mind on the nature of radical evil, which in her reply to Scholem she renames as “extreme.” Not once in Origins of Totalitarianism does Arendt attribute radical evil to demonic motives or some monstrous depth to the human soul.3 The totalitarian “hell on earth” is produced through a political production of superfluousness that has its roots not in the nature of the 155

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soul but instead in the “monstrous process” of expropriation that becomes increasingly extreme as it moves from imperialism’s production of economic and political superfluousness to the perfect superfluousness of the death camps. This process renders extreme evil banal in Arendt’s sense of moving along the surface without depth. Turning now to her discussion of Eichmann, I submit that Arendt’s account of the banality of evil remains inseparably connected to political and economic superfluousness that ends in extreme evil’s production of perfect superfluousness.

Eichmann and the thoughtless banality of evil Although Arendt is unwavering in her claim that extreme evil’s production of perfect superfluousness does not have it roots in the monstrous depths of the human soul, but instead in systemic political and economic conditions, she does not deny that it is also a moral problem inseparable from individual agency. We need to recall that for Arendt the moral, unlike the political, is marked by the self’s concern with its voice of conscience: Thoreau commits civil disobedience not out of a concern for the world but from a concern for his own conscience. He could not live with himself had he paid the poll tax. So, too, Eichmann claims that “he would have had a bad conscience if he had not done what he been ordered to do—to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and the most meticulous care” (Arendt 1963: 25). If there was a moment of temptation, it was when he was tempted not to murder. While some recent scholarship views this claim as disingenuous, a justification after the fact, Arendt takes him at his word, focusing on the transformation of Eichmann’s conscience such that his claim became true the longer he participated in the Nazi regime. Indeed, Arendt argues that the transformation of Eichmann’s voice of conscience provides us with the central moral problem of totalitarian evil, and it is the focus of her analysis of his banal thoughtlessness.4 Her trial report grapples with two questions that emerge from Eichmann’s conscience: (1) How was it possible for Eichmann to overcome his temptation of the good, and 2) how long does it take for “a person to overcome his or her moral repugnance to crime?” (Arendt 1963: 25). Contrary to the claims of some of her readers such as David Cesarani and Bettina Stangneth,5 Arendt does not argue that Eichmann was without motives in carrying out his duties as a Nazi functionary. On the contrary, she points out that Eichmann did have one motive and it was economic. Having been fired in 1932 from his job with the Vacuum Oil Company, a “déclassé son of a solid middle-class family,” he joined the Nazi Party because “he could start from scratch and make a career” (Arendt 1963: 33). In her 1945 essay “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” Arendt elaborates on the economic motivation that led ordinary citizens such as Eichmann to become part of the Nazi machine. Asking of “the real motives which caused people to act as cogs in the mass-murder machine” (Arendt 1994: 128, my emphasis), she points out that Himmler is the representative of these people, “the organizing spirit of the murder,” who was neither sadistic nor a fanatic but rather “a ‘bourgeois’ with all the outer aspect of respectability, all the habits of a good paterfamilias,” who understood that most people are “first and foremost jobholders, and good family men.” She then describes the central motive of such a good family-man: “It became clear that for the sake of his pension, his life insurance, the security of his wife and children, such a man was ready to sacrifice his beliefs, his honor, and his human dignity” (ibid.) Arendt, therefore, is not surprised when a number of psychiatrists found Eichmann’s “whole psychological outlook, his attitude toward his wife and children, father and mother, sisters, friends, was ‘not only normal, but most desirable’” (Arendt 1963: 26). Arendt’s description of Himmler as “neither sadistic nor a fanatic” but instead a “good bourgeois” raises the question of whether Eichmann was motivated by the ideology of racism. 156

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Certainly, Arendt has many critics who argue that she is able to describe Eichmann’s evil as thoughtless banality only because she overlooks his virulent anti-Semitism that made him more than simply a thoughtless functionary whose singular motive was careerism. Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann’s conscience, however, does not deny that he was ever free of the ideology of racism. Recall Arendt’s claim that racism is the haunting shadow of the nation-state manifested in the logic of inclusion and exclusion that animated the notion of a homogenous body politic. Certainly, she would not deny that Eichmann’s untiring efforts to relocate Jews to Madagascar were animated by this logic. She denies, however, that a virulent racism propelled him into the Nazi machine. David Cesarani, a critic of Arendt’s banality thesis, admits that Eichmann did not join the Nazi Party already a rabid racist: Eichmann’s account of his entry into the Nazi party, the SS and the SD exclude antiJewish feeling and this is probably true, but his disavowal of hostilities to the Jews once he had been in the SD for a few years rings hollow. (Cesarani 2014: 360–61) Cesarani’s claim lends support to Arendt’s argument in her analysis of imperialism in Origins of Totalitarianism that the principle of bureaucracy and the principle of racism were not initially connected in imperialism’s unlimited expansion, although certainly they traveled side by side: Although in the end racism and bureaucracy proved to be interrelated in many ways, they were discovered and developed independently. No one who in one way or the other was implicated in their perfection ever came to realize the full range of potentialities of power accumulation and destruction that this combination alone provided. (Arendt 1951: 186) She points out that Lord Cormer was an imperialist bureaucrat in India “who no more have dreamed of combining administration with massacre, than the race fanatics of South Africa thought of organizing massacres for the purpose of establishing a circumscribed, rational political community” (ibid.). Immediately following, in parentheses, Arendt adds, “as the Nazis did in the extermination camps” (ibid.). Within parentheses, in a subordinate clause, Arendt claims that the originality of the Nazi regime was to recognize the “full range of potentialities of power accumulation and destruction” unleashed by the combination of these two principles. In other words, the Nazis merged the imperialist principles of racism and bureaucracy to carry out “administrative massacres.” It is surprising that Arendt did not explicitly return to this insight when reporting on Eichmann’s thoughtless banality as it would have allowed her to better articulate how a thoughtless bureaucrat initially without strong ideological views could embrace an increasingly virulent anti-Semitism the longer he participated in the Nazi machine such that notion of a “desk murderer” is not a contradiction in terms. Significantly, Arendt’s report on Eichmann’s banality of evil begins with a consideration of neither bureaucracy nor race, but instead with a consideration of his economic superfluousness. In fact, I submit that her description of Eichmann’s thoughtless banality must be understood as an account of the other side of the production of perfect superfluousness, focusing not on extreme evil’s production of “living corpses” but instead on the economically superfluous who found remedy by becoming thoughtless functionaries of that production. Still further, while Arendt is often criticized for her use of the term “banality” to describe totalitarianism’s evil, betraying thereby a lack of regard for the victims of this evil, this criticism overlooks the fact that her analysis of Eichmann continues her reflections on the extreme evil that produced the victims 157

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of the death camps, showing the inseparability of the political production of superfluousness of both the victim and the thoughtless banality of the perpetrator such as Eichmann. Here I want to return briefly to Arendt’s discussion of the “monstrous process” of extreme evil’s production of superfluousness. At the outset of her report, Arendt notes that Eichmann felt he was “a leaf in the whirlwind of time [which] had blown him into History, as he understood it, namely, into a Movement that always kept moving” (Arendt 1963: 33). Along with economic motive, this sense of being part of a process was decisive for Eichmann’s joining the Nazi Party. For Arendt, Eichmann was one of those “modern men,” for whom: it was at least as decisive that [he] began to consider himself part and parcel of the two superhuman, all-encompassing processes of nature and history, both of which seemed doomed to an infinite progress without ever reaching any inherent telos or approaching any preordained idea. (Arendt 1957: 307) Placed within the infinite flow, singular acts and events have no inherent meaning and have become superfluous. As Arendt puts it: the perplexity is that the particular incident, the observable fact, or single occurrence of nature, or the reported deed and event of history, have ceased to make sense without a universal process in which they are supposedly embedded; yet the moment man approaches this process in order to escape the haphazard character of the particular, in order to find meaning . . . his effort is rebutted by the answer from all sides: Any order, any necessity, any meaning you wish to impose will do. (Arendt 1968: 88–9) Not only did Eichmann understand the Nazi movement in terms of a universal process of history that renders singular acts and events superfluous; he saw himself as part of this process, thereby making superfluous his capacities for acting and judging, both of which require an engagement with particular deeds and events. In a short review of J-T Delos’s La Nation, written in 1946, Arendt anticipates the problem of Eichmann’s conscience caught up in the stream of history. Reflecting on the conquering of the modern state by the nation, a conquest in which the state “became the supreme individual before which all individuals had to bow,” Arendt points out that this conquest also brought about the “individualization of the moral universal within a collective, the concretization of the Idea, “first thought by Hegel as Spirit, but subsequently devolved into the spirit of the people [or] the soul of the race” (Arendt 1994:209). Arendt goes on to claim: The main aspect of this conception is that the Idea, no longer recognized as an independent entity, finds its realization in the movement of history as such. Since then, all modern political theories which lead to totalitarianism present an immersion of an absolute principle into reality in the form of a historical movement; and it is this absoluteness, which they pretend to embody, which gives them their “right” of priority over the individual conscience. (Arendt 1994: 209, my emphasis) Following Delos, Arendt points out that not only does the structure of totalitarianism absorb each individual into the collective, it also “surrenders him to becoming” (Arendt 1994: 210). 158

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Surrendered to the stream of becoming, the “particular reality of the individual person appears, indeed, as a quantité négligeable, submerged in the stream of public life which, since organized as a movement, is the universal itself” (Arendt 1994: 210). Caught up in a movement that renders individual agency and judgment superfluous, Eichmann’s conscience becomes elated, caught up in the “winged words” of Heinrich Himmler, “who was the most gifted at solving problems of conscience” (Arendt 1963: 105). Elated, Eichmann’s voice of conscience was not silenced but rather transformed by being carried away, caught up in the voice of another; his voice had literally been “voiced over” with the voice of Himmler. Identified with the voice of Himmler, Eichmann’s elated voice of conscience is now transformed, losing its repugnance to commit evil: And just as the law in civilized countries assumes that the voice of conscience tells everybody, “Thou shalt not kill,” even though man’s natural desires and the inclinations may at times be murderous, so the law of Hitler’s land demands that the voice of conscience tell everybody: “Thou shalt kill,” although the organizers of the massacres knew full well that murder is against the normal desires and inclinations of most people. (Arendt 1963: 150)6 In Eichmann’s case, the transformation of his conscience and the overcoming of his repugnance to committing evil was accomplished by turning basic instincts such as pity whereby we recoil at the suffering of others back upon the self. As Arendt points out, The trick used by Himmler consisted in turning these instincts around, as it were, in directing them toward the self. So that instead of saying: “What horrible things I did to people,” the murderers would be able to say, “What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties.” (Arendt 1963: 106) Himmler’s trick, Arendt argues, was accomplished through slogans and stock phrases, the effect of which was to distance his followers, including Eichmann, from any engagement with reality. I want to linger over this last point, because it is not often noticed by Arendt’s readers that Eichmann’s use of clichés emerges not only in submerging his conscience into the moving stream of history, but at the same time emerges in his getting caught up in the cliched language of the Nazi Party, which strictly enforced a set of “language rules” such that Jewish victims were not slated for “extermination” but instead, “resettled” and “subject to special treatment” (Arendt 1963: 85). As Arendt points out, Nazi functionaries such as Eichmann were not “bearers of orders” but “bearers of secrecy,” thereby eliminating any sense of individual agency in favor of simply protecting a secret hidden in the recesses of the heart. The effect of these language rules was not to keep people, including Eichmann, “ignorant of what they were doing, but to prevent them from equating it with their old, ‘normal’ knowledge of murder and lies.” At this point, Arendt answers her second question: protected against the reality of his actions through his immersion in the movement of history whose cliched voice is that of the Party, it took approximately four weeks for Eichmann’s conscience to overcome its moral repugnance to commit atrocities.7 After four weeks, he could carry out his duties in the murderous production of the perfect superfluousness of the death camps without being tempted to do otherwise. 159

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Here I want to emphasize Arendt’s claim that Eichmann’s reversal of conscience was possible through his increasing remoteness from reality. This remoteness from reality is Arendt’s definition of the thoughtlessness that marks the banality of evil. I cite Arendt at length: Eichmann was not Iago. . . . Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. . . . He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing. . . . It was sheer thoughtlessness . . .  that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of the period. . . . That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together . . . that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem . . . the strange interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil. (Arendt 1963: 287–8) As we have seen, the first step of Eichmann’s thoughtlessness was seeking remedy for his political and social superfluousness by entering the movement of history that renders superfluous singular events and deeds and which absolved him all individual agency and judgment. His individual voice of conscience became a quantité négligeable. The cliched language of the party of that movement furthered the remoteness. Eichmann’s voice of conscience – a voice that usually provokes one to stop and think – became morally thoughtless: “he never realized what he was doing.” This moral thoughtlessness is Arendt’s definition of the “the banality of evil.” Eichmann’s thoughtlessness, however, is not the entirety of the evil Arendt is pointing to when she claims “the strange interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil.” If Eichmann’s thoughtlessness - his banality of evil - was all that Arendt meant by evil, she would have written, “the strange evil of thoughtlessness.” Instead, she notes an interdependency of thoughtlessness and evil. In my view, Arendt is noting the interdependency of banal thoughtlessness and the radical evil at work in the systematic production of perfect superfluousness. Eichmann’s moral thoughtlessness is the condition of his being a diligent and zealous functionary in the production of the death camps. At the same time, his own superfluousness made him thoughtless. In other words, Arendt never wavers in her claim that extreme evil is the systematic production of perfect superfluousness. Her account of the banality of evil is an account of the production of the moral thoughtlessness that is concomitant with this production. They are interdependent. Again, Arendt suggests that economic and political superfluousness is the condition of Eichmann’s banal thoughtlessness. Recall Arendt’s claim that radical evil “has appeared in connection with a system in which all men have become superfluous in some way” (OT 475). Immediately following this claim, she notes that a peculiar kind of loneliness is at work in this superfluousness and is key to understanding its potentiality for evil: Loneliness, the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, for ideology and logicality, the preparation of its executioners and victims, is closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses. To be uprooted means to have no place in the world recognized and guaranteed by others, to be superfluous means not to belong to the world at all. (Arendt 1951: 475) As we have seen, at the outset of her account of the banality of evil Arendt notes that Eichmann was a “leaf in the wind,” a “declassed son” without a job or career and lacking a sense of significance or meaning to his existence. Joining the Nazi Party gave him a career, social standing, and a sense of historical significance. In sum, it provided a remedy to his economic and political 160

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superfluousness, which in turn produced the moral thoughtlessness necessary to become a functionary in radical evil’s production of perfect superfluousness. Thus, Arendt gives us a double account of evil: the banality of evil (moral thoughtlessness) is concomitant with radical evil’s extreme production of the perfect superfluousness of the death camps. She notes that evil – at once banal and radical – has appeared in a world where human beings have become “equally superfluous.” This returns us to the beginning of Arendt’s genealogy of superfluousness. Prior to both banal and radical evil is the monstrous process of expropriation that produces economic and political superfluousness. This process is ongoing, which is why Arendt claims that evil will continue to be the problem of our present age.

Notes 1 The quote is from Hannah Arendt’s “A Letter to Gershom Scholem” (2007: 470–71). Richard J. Bernstein (1996) has a very good discussion of the two aspects of evil in Arendt’s thought – superfluousness and banality – but agrees with most of Arendt’s readers that she changes her mind and moves from extreme evil’s production of superfluousness to evil’s banal thoughtlessness. He spends no time showing how Eichmann’s thoughtlessness emerges from the production of superfluousness. 2 Nancy Fraser’s recent work emphasizes that expropriation is condition for exploitation. While Fraser acknowledged Arendt’s grasp of imperialism’s deformation of the nation-state in Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, especially the “under-appreciated middle section on imperialism,” Fraser overlooks Arendt’s claim of the primacy of expropriation in her analysis of imperialism and, moreover, her claim that imperialism is driven by the engine of racism such that expropriation is from the outset racialized. See: Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory, 2018. Cambridge: Polity, p. 39, note 39. 3 In fact, Arendt clearly distances herself from Kant’s notion of radical evil that attributes a hidden source of radical evil in the depths of the human will. As she points out, “It is inherent in our entire philosophical tradition that we cannot conceive of a ‘radical evil,’ and this is true for Christian theology, which conceded even to the Devil himself a celestial origin, as well as for Kant, the only philosopher who, in the word he coined for it, at least must have suspected the existence of this evil even though he immediately rationalized it in the concept of a ‘perverted ill will’ that could be explained by comprehensible motives” (see Origins, p. 459). Immediately following this discussion of Kant, Arendt points out that the extreme evil of the death “breaks down all standards we know” with “only one thing that seems to be discernible: we may say that radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous” (ibid.) 4 Arendt’s essay “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy” supports my argument that Arendt’s understanding of evil insists on both its political and moral dimensions. In this essay, she points to both the extreme evil of the death camps and the “true moral issue” of those “who only ‘coordinated’ themselves . . . ordinary people, who, as long as moral standards were socially accepted, never dreamt of doubting what they had been taught to believe” (in Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, p. 54). Arendt explicitly names Eichmann as someone who poses this moral issue. 5 See David Cesarani, Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, and Trial of a “Desk Murderer,” and Bettina Stangneth, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer. Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men, and Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, also offer important counterarguments to Arendt’s claim that Eichmann was a thoughtless bureaucrat without strong ideological convictions. 6 For a longer account of Himmler’s role in the reversal of conscience, see my article “Holes of Oblivion: The Banality of Evil” in Hypatia, vol. 18, no. 1 (Winter 2003), pp. 80–103. In this earlier essay, following Kristeva’s and Kateb’s accounts of Arendt’s understanding of evil, I argued for a much more psychoanalytic account of extreme evil’s banality, arguing that it is rooted in the ontological condition of human finitude with its inherent abandonment and loneliness, whose remedy, I argued, is a renewed concept of political friendship. The 2003 essay neglected entirely Arendt’s analysis throughout Origins of Totalitarianism of imperialism, racism, and the political-economic production of superfluousness that had as its final step the production of the perfect superfluousness of the death camps. See George Kateb, Hannah Arendt: Politics, Conscience, Evil, and Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt. 7 See Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, pages 93ff.


Peg Birmingham

References Arendt, H. (1951) Origins of Totalitarianism, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Arendt, H. (1992/1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem, New York: Penguin. Arendt, H. (1968) Between Past and Future, New York: Penguin. Arendt, H. (1969) Crises of the Republic, New York: Harcourt Brace. Arendt, H. (1994) Essays in Understanding, edited by Jerome Kohn, New York: Harcourt Brace. Arendt, H. (2003) Responsibility and Judgment, edited by Jerome Kohn, New York: Schocken. Arendt, H. (2007) The Jewish Writings, edited by Jerome Kohn and Ron Feldman, New York: Schocken. Bernstein, R. (1996) Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Browning, C. (1992) Ordinary Men, Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, New York: Harper. Cesarani, D. (2014) Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, and Trial of a “Desk Murderer,” London: Da Capo. Goldhagen, D. (1997) Hitler’s Willing Executioner’s, Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, New York: Vintage. Kateb, G. (1984) Hannah Arendt: Politics, Conscience, Evil, Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld. Kristeva, J. (2001) Hannah Arendt, New York: Columbia University. Marx, K. (1977/1867) Capital, Volume One, translated by Ben Fowkes, New York: Vintage. Stangneth, B. (2015) Eichmann Before Jerusalem, The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, New York: Vintage.


12 AFTER THE FALL Camus on evil Matthew Sharpe

Asked by Émile Simon about the foundations of his thinking in 1948, Albert Camus gave this answer: “The insurmountable obstacle appears to me to be the problem of evil. There is the death of innocents which signifies the arbitrariness of the divine, but there is also the murder of infants which embodies [traduit] human arbitrariness” (Camus 1948: 476). As the existence of this Routledge Handbook attests, in the period following September 11, 2001, we might be a good deal less surprised by Camus’s response than his Marxissant contemporaries were, in their preoccupation with the economic, structural preconditions of political life. We live in an age in which the old questions of theodicy have rebecome contemporary: What is evil? How is it possible? Is it necessary? What does its existence say about the human condition? Is evil’s continuing career the best argument in the armory of the atheists? Or does its existence challenge forth the most profound grounds for faith? For Camus as for some Christian theology, as we shall see, evil is first of all manifest in seemingly useless human suffering, even or especially when caused by natural or “divine,” not human causes. It secondly involves moral evil, freely chosen by agents, albeit capable of being institutionalized in the vast machineries of enslavement and killing of the twentieth century. This chapter will examine Camus’s thoughts on natural and moral evil in three registers. The first is the ontological register, in which the reality of senseless suffering becomes for Camus the cause of both his ceaseless engagement with, and irreconcilable distance from Augustinian theology (although not other aspects of Christianity). The second is the political register, in which Camus’s The Rebel (1956a) gives a philosophical account of how the twentieth-century totalitarian regimes came to rationalize political murder on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Third, we turn to what can be called the psychological or spiritual register. In Camus’s The Fall and “The Renegade,” as we will see, Camus dramatized and explored the questions of how individual humans can be seduced into perpetrating and rationalizing deceit and violence.

Natural or divine evil: Camus, Ivan Karamazov, Saint Augustine, and Doctor Rieux The abiding popular image of Camus depicts him as an “absurdist.” This Camus is obsessed with the seeming senselessness of human life in a world now conceived as without a salvific, providential deity. His preoccupation with the “absurd” leads to meditations on suicide, then 163

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on murder and terror in the age of the totalitarian regimes of the far right, led by the Nazis, and Stalinism on the far left. This image of Camus is deeply contestable, not least concerning the putative “senselessness” of human existence. In fact, The Myth of Sisyphus (1978 [1942]) already presents us with an affirmative philosophy. The young Camus “rebels” against false or dubitable consolations offered him against the indubitable realities of death and finitude (Camus 1978: 53–60). He proposes a philosophical form of life that would lucidly confront this “black side of the sun” he so loved, as a boy raised on Mediterranean streets and beaches (Camus 1968: 357; Sharpe 2014). This conception of “rebellion” becomes the basis for his mature work of political philosophy, The Rebel/L’Homme révolté of 1951 (1956a). The book, as is well known, provides a genealogical account of the modern totalitarian désastres. But the genealogy begins with early modern forms of “metaphysical rebellion” against the absolute monarchies and their theological foundations (Camus 1956a: 23–104). The philosophical challenges to Christian political theology posed by early modern “free thinkers” (Camus 1956a: 36) paved the way for the forms of political or “historical rebellion” that began with the Jacobins’ regicide and ensuing Terror and culminated in the genocides of Hitler and Stalin (Camus 1956a: 105–252). Throughout the genealogy, Camus’s concern remains single-mindedly on the question of the right to kill that the twentieth century had seen so horrifically reinstated by the totalitarian regimes: Our purpose is to find out whether innocence, the moment it becomes involved in action, can avoid committing murder. We can act only in terms of our own time, among the people who surround us. We shall know nothing until we know whether we have the right to kill our fellow men, or the right to let them be killed. In that every action today leads to murder, direct or indirect, we cannot act until we know whether or why we have the right to kill. (Camus 1956a: 4) The metaphysical rebels with which Camus’s genealogy commences are figures like the Voltaire of Candide and de Sade in the eighteenth century. However criminal de Sade’s response, Camus reads his thought as animated by the same problem of evil that shook Voltaire (Camus 1956a: 37), and much of intellectual Europe after the devastation of pious Lisbon by the earthquake in 1755 (Neiman 2004). If God is omnibenevolent as well as allpowerful, as the Christian tradition supposes, how can there be such acts of natural evil, in which Christians perished alongside Muslims, Catholics alongside Protestants, and children alongside the most inveterate sinners? For Camus, the secular age is an age born out of indignant rebellion against the idea that such natural calamities could be part of the providential plans of a god of love. It is not the age of anomic or atheistic egoism, although it opens up those possibilities. It is born of a concern for justice, questioning the legitimacy of theological sanctions for murder and unjustified suffering. This animating concern in The Rebel is what makes the section on Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, “The Rejection of Salvation,” so important (Camus 1956a: 55–62; see 101–2). Highlighting its significance, Camus places it in between dedicated sections on the“Absolute Negation” and “Absolute Affirmation” that we will see Camus thinks defines modern forms of political evil. Having witnessed the senseless death of an innocent child, Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov agonizes over how to reconcile such a senseless death with God’s plan. His compassion leads him first to an assertion with which Camus largely concurs: that a


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God who could prescript such senseless suffering into his providence is not worthy of unquestioning faith: Ivan does not say that there is no [providential, theological] truth. He says that if truth does exist, it can only be unacceptable. Why? Because it is unjust. The struggle between truth and justice is begun here. (Camus 1956a: 56) This is the same attitude, of course, of Doctor Rieux faced with the agonizing death of Monsieur Othon’s child in The Plague, which he hurls in the face of the Jesuit Father Paneloux, who is at his side: “that one at least was innocent, and you know it as well as I do!” (Camus 1971: 177). This Father Paneloux is nevertheless a profoundly important figure both in The Plague, and for understanding Camus’s wider stance against theodicy. The justification of God’s justice to man rests on the claim that the evils people suffer are punishment for our innate sinfulness, as inheritors of Adamic guilt; or that evil is necessary, so the good may shine; or that God’s plan, however apparently unjust, is beyond human comprehension (Camus 2007: 119–23). Camus’s lesser-known, but highly important, 1936 thesis on Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism had already wrestled with the Gnostics’ and early Church’s attempts to come to terms in these ways with natural and human evil (Camus 2007: 47–60). Like Pierre Bayle or Hans Blumenberg, Camus is struck by the simple coherence of the Gnostic solution to the “problem of evil”: to suppose that the salvific God is not all-powerful, and that this veil of tears is evidently the product of a malign deity or deities (Camus 2007: 67–75). To “ward off Gnosticism,” in Blumenberg’s phrase (1997: 132–41), Christianity after Augustine is compelled to freight human beings with the vast cosmic weight of having introduced evil into Creation. It thereby looks to explain seemingly unjustifiable suffering on the basis of each generation’s inheritance of Adam and Eve’s sinfulness, as rightful punishments for innate human pride. As Father Paneloux in The Plague tells the Oranais people, soon after the plague strikes their quarantined town: The first time this scourge appears in history, it was wielded to strike down the enemies of God. Pharaoh set himself up against the divine will, and the plague beat him to his knees. Thus from the dawn of recorded history the scourge of God has humbled the proud of heart and laid low those who hardened themselves against Him. Ponder this well, my friends, and fall on your knees. (Camus 1971: 78) At the limit reached by Saint Augustine, this position commits us to supposing that, despite all works and appearances, nemo bonus (no one is good). Even unbaptized children are not innocent (Camus 2007: 123). Should they be killed by illness, wickedness, or disaster, they cannot be accepted into Heaven. Throughout his life, Camus agonized over this last Augustinian idea. As he protested against the image of his work as “pessimistic” in 1946, in a speech delivered at a Dominican monastery: what right has a Christian or a Marxist to accuse me of pessimism? It is not I who invented the “misery of the creature”, nor the terrifying formulas of divine malediction. It is not I who exclaimed “nemo bonus” (Mark 10:18), nor I who preached the damnation of unbaptised children. It is not I who said that man was incapable of saving himself and that from the depths of his misery his only hope was in the grace of God. (Camus 1974: 72–3)1


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Camus’s distance from Christianity centered upon his resulting, controversial claim that it is a religion of injustice. He profoundly admired many Christians, and Christianity itself when it is embodied in acts of self-sacrificing love. The Fall gives us a highly sympathetic depiction of “my friend,” Jesus: albeit as a man, not God, and albeit in the duplicitous mouth of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, whom we shall encounter in due course (Camus 1956b: 115). Paneloux in The Plague himself dies a “doubtful” death, having undergone his own transformation after witnessing the death of the innocent child (Camus 1971: 187–91; Merton 1995). In his latter sermon to the Oranians, delivered after this event, Paneloux uses the first-person plural “we” to describe the fate of the townspeople. There is no certain answer to the why? question, he now qualifies his earlier stridency. Instead, he falls back upon Augustine’s conception of Predestination: “My brethren,” Father Paneloux said at last, announcing that he was coming to an end, “the love of God is a difficult love. It assumes a total abandonment of oneself and contempt for one’s person. But it alone can wipe away the suffering and death of children, it alone makes them necessary because it is impossible to understand such things. . . . This is the hard lesson that I wanted to share with you. This is the faith— cruel in the eyes of man, decisive in the eyes of God—which we must try to reach. We must try to make ourselves equal to this awful image. On this peak, everything will be confounded and made equal, and the truth will break forth from apparent injustice.” (Camus 1971: 186) As Camus had already argued in his 1936 Diplômes thesis, what is at issue then is exactly a matter of faith, requiring a sacrificio intellectus unable to be justified in the modern age: “Augustine’s final word on this subject . . . is an admission of ignorance. Divine arbitrariness remains intact” (Camus 2007: 123; see 121).

Moral or political evil: secularizing the divine right to kill So the modern age begins for Camus with a legitimate human rebellion against divine arbitrariness and its political utility, in the hands of kings and clergy, as the justification for forms of this-worldly injustices. Camus would have had little truck with contemporary reanimations of political theology in the wake of the seemingly final fall of Marxism in Europe. Profoundly antitheodical, Camus cannot accept any rational justification, theological or secular, for the killing of innocents, or in general for the premeditated killing without trials (and even with trials) of human beings (Camus 1974: 173–234; 1956a: 279–93). But how then does Camus think that the legitimate early modern rebellion against divine arbitrariness and the “divine right of kings” – to wage war, imprison, enslave, and kill in God’s name – morph into the disastrous twentieth-century experiments in similarly arbitrary, limitless power? It is this troubling enigma that shapes the largest part of The Rebel: Progress, from the time of Sade up to the present day, has consisted in gradually enlarging the stronghold where, according to his own rules, man without God brutally wields power. In defiance of the divinity, the frontiers of this stronghold have been gradually extended, to the point of making the entire universe into a fortress erected against the fallen and exiled deity. Man, at the culmination of his rebellion, incarcerated himself; from Sade’s lurid castle to the concentration camps, man’s greatest liberty consisted only in building the prison of his crimes. (Camus 1956a: 102–3) 166

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Camus’s answer, in his own terms, is profoundly Greek, as opposed to Christian (Camus 2007: 40–41). Camus accepts Socrates’ idea that, however horrendous their actions may be, human beings commit evil not out of the compulsion of a broken human nature but through forms of self-misrecognition and by misunderstanding their true, larger Good (Plato, Protagoras 357c–358c). Here, for instance, is Rieux speaking in The Plague, but he is speaking for Camus: “The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. They are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.” (Camus 1971: 110.) The first key idea capturing the kinds of “ignorance” Camus thinks explains human evil here is that of a “leap” (un saut), which Camus had introduced in Myth of Sisyphus (1978: 6, 33–41). In this early work, it was used to describe the forms of passionate, absolute affirmation that there just must be an absolute meaning to life or else, in an equally absolute negation, there can be no meaning (Camus 1978: 33–48). Both these forms of reasoning, which Camus calls forms of “philosophical suicide,” “leap” out of the uncanny middle ground of the “absurd.” This lies neither in man nor in the world. It emerges in the confrontation between the inalienable human demand for unity, justice, and meaning, and the undeniable registers of our condition that resist, undermine, or do violence to this “desire for unity” (like death, the limits of our understanding, and then senseless suffering) (Camus 1978: 17–21). The philosophical suicide “leaps” to one or other, symmetrical form of metaphysical closure out of a “nostalgia.” He wishes to escape from the ambiguities and uncertainties that beset a life lived lucidly, excluding nothing of our experience: “[r]eason and the irrational lead to the same preaching. In truth the way matters but little, the will to arrive suffices” (Camus 1971: 47–8). In The Rebel, the same critical Camusian idea of a “leap” returns.2 But, this time, what is at stake is the question of the possible legitimacy of murder or capital punishment, as against suicide. Ivan Karamazov thus leaps, definitively, at the moment when his indignation against divine injustice carries his “such a God [who allows innocents’ deaths] does not deserve to exist” into the unsustainable, atheist affirmation: “there is no God, thus everything is permitted” (Camus 1971: 102). This form of “leap,” wherein the victims find their justification not simply for resisting divine evil, but for passing from victims to executioners, is the heart of Camus’s critique of the modern totalitarian mindset (Camus 2006). Indeed, it is possible to argue that (skirting an idealistic reductivism3) there is one form to all of Camus’s political criticisms of Sade-ism, romanticism, Nietzscheanism, Jacobinism, fascism and Nazism, Leninism and Stalinism. Each begins from the “Karamazovian” outrage that, as things stand, it seems as though natural evil and human injustice are necessary to the natural order. Each ends, in response, not by opposing political murder on principle (Camus’s position (1971: 279–93; 2006)) but by assigning to human beings, the party, leader, or master race the same right to divine arbitrariness modern revolt had begun by opposing. In each case, however, as in Ivan Karamazov’s, there is a “leap” of erroneous reasoning which the philosopher can discern: a paralogism wherein inestablishable, secularized theological, or metaphysical positions are introduced to give form to the rebellion’s founding indignation, and to vindicate assuming ourselves the excessive rights to kill, deceive, or enslave that we had decried in an unjust God or our this-worldly oppressors. For example, here is how the revolutionary leap takes place in 167

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the different ideological positions of, first, the romantics, second, fascism, and, third, Leninism. If senseless suffering and injustice seem to be inevitable, part of the natural or divine order: Romantics, surrealists: •• •• ••

then . . . we, like Milton’s Satan, are the victim of injustice; thus we must [leap] make our lives (in dandyism) and our art a standing protest against His Order. . .  thus [a second leap] crime is justifiable, the criminal a martyr, excess the portal of higher revelations . . . (Camus 1971: 47–54).

Fascism: •• •• ••

then . . . there is no higher Meaning to this world; the suffering of the weak must be an ineradicable part of the world order; thus [leap], the strong (those capable of seeing this without pity) should do whatever they need to (murder, exploitation, deceit) to rule (Camus 1956a: 177–87; 1974, 5–32).

Marxism-Leninism •• •• •• ••

then . . . any values that do exist cannot come from God, or from any other Transcendent source . . .  indeed, theological and Formal, Transcendent principles have been used to rationalise and mystify real injustices . . .  thus [leap] human History alone, the long story of class struggle alone is true; and thus [a second leap] the highest value must be to do whatever it takes (including murder, vanguardism, propaganda) to expedite the end of Historical struggle and the advent of a classless society (Camus 1956a: 133–48, 197–210, 226–32).

It is worth unpacking several of the philosophical suppositions at work in Camus’s idea that political evil involves assuming the right to kill, on the basis of such flawed, paralogical leaps as those just inventoried. The first implication is that a completely lucid form of reasoning, which takes no licenses with facts and “excludes nothing” of our condition, can never sanction suicide or murder (Camus 1968: 165, 169). This is actually a deeply optimistic position, in stark contrast to the pessimism often charged against Camus. Camus’s philosophical optimism does not suppose, in a utopian vein, that human beings could ever realistically end evil and suffering. It does however suppose that there is something in our condition which orients us toward this impossible end. In moments which anticipate Jürgen Habermas’s claims on behalf of an ideal speech situation underlying all forms of mundane communication, but pointing beyond them toward a horizon of consensual human solidarity, Camus can thus write that “parler, répare”: “to speak [is] to heal” (1971: 8). Even the greatest crimes, on this view, are faulty attempts to commune with others. They presuppose and bespeak a longing for a “kingdom” of human solidarity as an ideal normative horizon. “In every word and in every act, even though it be criminal,” Camus writes, “lies the promise of a value that we must seek out and bring to light” (1971: 248):4 Man wants to reign supreme through the revolution. But why reign supreme if nothing has any meaning? Why wish for immortality if the aspect of life is so hideous? . . . The destruction of man once more affirms man. Terror and concentration camps are 168

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the drastic means used by man to escape solitude. The thirst for unity must be assuaged, even in the common grave. If men kill one another, it is because they reject mortality and desire immortality for all men. Therefore, . . .they prove, at the same time, that they cannot dispense with mankind; they satisfy a terrible hunger for fraternity. (Camus 1971: 248) These reflections open out onto the final register of Camus’s Socratic-philosophical explanation of human evil, even the genocidal evils of the totalitarian regimes, as issuing from forms of error or ignorance, albeit charged with forms of cynicism, anger, hatred, and fear. This is Camus’s singular claim that moral or political evil always involves (or results from) forcibly or violently excluding some salient dimension of human experience: whether it is our need for friendship, love, or art; the beauty of the natural world; the inhumanity of the natural world; our determination by social institutions; our love of the particular places and customs in which we were raised; or the capacity of our reason, imagination, and sensibility to transcend tribal boundaries. Instead, one particular datum or dimension of the human condition is artificially hypostasized, or promoted as “the one thing needful,” to the exclusion of all others. Fascism for instance takes our racial, spiritual, or national identities as the One Thing we must singularly promote (Sharpe 2016), even if this means cruelty and violence toward the weak and all outsiders. Marxism-Leninism takes our status as laboring animals and subjects of collective historical processes as the One Thing we must single-mindedly promote, even if it means cruelty and violence toward the bourgeois, dissidents, intellectuals, artists, etc. Each position, including the most extreme, thus has at least a partial validity. Nothing human, even the worst evils, is foreign for Camus. But Camus will add that each position also has its “limits”: a key word in his mature thought. The evils that human beings mistakenly pursue as forms of the Good are also thus forms of excess (démesure) (Camus 1956a: 21, 56–7, 97, 107, 157, 251, 301). Camus’s classical inspiration for this position came from the tragic dramatists, more than the Greek and Roman philosophers. The ancient tragedies, Camus argued, were already metaphysically complex dramas, like the modern age has become. Each staged not the triumph of any one world view, as in morality plays; but the confrontation between the excessive representatives of two or more such viewpoints: in tragedy, each force is at one and the same time both good and bad . . . it wears the double mask of good and evil. . . . Antigone is right, but Creon is not wrong. Similarly, Prometheus is both just and unjust, and Zeus, who pitilessly oppresses him, has right on his side . . . the perfect tragic formula would be “All can be justified, no one is just.” (Camus 1987: 301) The end of these plays then sees the destruction of heroes who, although each partly justified, take their position too far, embracing forms of violent and finally self-destructive evil. They each cross the Camusian limit, and so must put out their eyes. What the tragedies thus point to, for Camus (alongside Cornelius Castoriadis 1997; see Sharpe 2002), is the wisdom of pluralistic, democratic societies. For it is in such regimes alone that different perspectives can each find their expression, balanced by the checks of others’ views (Camus 1987: 301–4; 1971: 26–8). At the same time, the tragedies dramatize the price for achieving such a post-tragic democracy. This is that each must renounce his (or her) exclusive claim to Truth and Right: a price that Camus knew to be immensely spiritually demanding, as we shall examine now. 169

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The psychology of evil: The Fall, guilt, and the renegade In the third volume of Camus’s Oeuvres Complètes there is a little-known piece entitled “Orgueil” (“Pride”) (Camus 2008b). The text is dated by the editors between 1948 and 1956, on the basis of its epigraph from Gandhi. It is a curious and intriguing morsel, recording a series of reflections by God the Father concerning human beings, His creation. God, perhaps unsurprisingly, presents us with a very Augustinian discourse concerning the lamentable but seemingly inextinguishable human desire to rival His absolute power. It is this pride that provokes every divine rebuff and causes every human disaster. “It is always the same thing,” according to God (Camus 2008b: 1171): from Adam and Eve, through the tower of Babel, Prometheus, and “that poor young Icarus” to the Manhattan Project (Camus 2008b: 1171–3).5 There is moreover an additional sting in the tail to these ill-conceived bids for apotheosis, God warns us at the close. To the extent that human beings exalt our pride, demystify all mysteries, and usurp God’s allpowerful place, human life will lose its distinct dimensions: as the body has need of bread so the soul has need of something incomprehensible, so that you may have something still to seek out . . . if one day men vanquish me and know all things, said God, . . . one will see a striking thing: God and man dying the same death. (Camus 2008b: 1173) It is the Augustinian register that emerges in some of Camus’s 1950s texts that has prompted frequent speculation about Camus’s imminent conversion. As we have seen, Camus’s response to the problem of evil up to at least 1951 and The Rebel was Socratic or tragic: evil involves forms of error, ignorance, excess, blindness, and partiality. We err despite our better selves, and through lack of mesure (moderation, temperance, sophrosynȇ) (Camus 1971: 294–301). People always “mean well,” even when their decisions license the physical killing of other human beings. In “Orgueil” as in The Fall of 1956, by contrast, Camus seems to recur to the Christian idea that there is an immovable pride in the human spirit. This presumption means we cannot tolerate our limited, intermediary place in the order of things, between angels and beasts. If evil, for the Greek poets, involved the hybris of acting as if we were more and other than we are, then the human condition on this later Camusian model would be irredeemably hybristic, if not radically evil in the Kantian sense (Kant 1999; and Chapter 8 in this volume). So, does Camus have a change of heart in the 1950s, turning upon the problem of evil at the heart of his oeuvre? Despite some appearances, I want to suggest that the answer is “no.” Certainly, Camus’s texts and his points of emphasis change, reflecting the difficult circumstances he found himself in the 1950s. Like his character Jean-Baptiste Clamence in The Fall, whose life as a carefree bon viveur and shining advocate for “widows and orphans” (Camus 1956b: 17) is interrupted when he comes upon a young woman committing suicide one night on the Seine; so Camus after 1951 fell suddenly from grace as an intellectual of the Rive Gauche due to his criticisms of the then-in-vogue Stalinism. He also came to struggle, both with renewed, serious illness (the tuberculosis he had suffered since his youth) and guilt about his marital infidelities. After 1954 and the outbreak of the Algerian war, Camus was widely positioned by the Parisian left as on the wrong side of history, as a moderate pied noir who advocated for a political, not military end to French colonialism.6 As his Carnets from this period attest, Camus now wrestled with a profound sense of being deeply unworthy of his reputation as a man of conscience: “Each time someone tells me that they admire the man in me, I have the impression of having lied all my life” (Camus 2008: 67). 170

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But Camus’s resulting focus on guilt in The Fall and the story “The Renegade” in Exile and the Kingdom (1962 [1957]) also answer to a different kind of question about evil than the analyses in L’Homme Révolté and earlier texts. Camus’s focus now moves from the analysis of philosophy and ideology to the diagnosis of motivation: the question of why it is that individuals can be drawn to embrace totalizing ideologies and pursue mastery at the expense of solidarity, even to the point of willingly enslaving and harming other people. Totalitarian regimes, Camus had already argued in The Rebel, work by cultivating a sense of universal guilt or culpability in subjects. They withdraw the protections of calculable, rational laws, so one never knows when one has become “objectively guilty” in the eyes of the Leader or Party (Camus 1971: 233–45). They install regimes of secret police to surveil the populace, monitor all communications, and encourage neighbors and colleagues to “report” upon one another. They reserve the right to retrospectively enact edicts against particular individuals and groups, and destroy lives and families without compunction. Stalinism enacts a “universe of trial,” Camus argues, at the same time as all right of attorney or appeal is destroyed. Totalitarian governance is a “state of siege” become permanent, wherein every subject is potentially an enemy and actually like a rights-less refugee in their own country (Camus 1971: 233–45). Nevertheless, what we get in the two famous later Camusian monologues that address the question of evil, The Fall and “The Renegade,” are depictions of the psycho-logic of guilt from the inside. Camus now sets out to explore how human beings can be motivated to appease their own sense of guilt by putting others to the sword, and to seek, in domination or servitude, perverted substitutes for true communion: Those who reject the agony of living and dying wish to dominate. “Solitude is power,” says Sade. Power, today, because for thousands of solitary people it signifies the suffering of others, bears witness to the need for others. Terror is the homage the malignant recluse finally pays to the brotherhood of man. (Camus 1971: 248) In fact, the same Camusian framework of the “leap” that we explored in Part 2 demonstrably applies in this new, psychological territory too. We saw above that the question to which the totalizing ideologies examined in The Rebel each respond is the question of how human beings should respond to a natural order in which evil seems to be inescapably necessary. By contrast, the questions posed in The Fall and “The Renegade,” less abstract, are: How should an individual respond when, at some point, they realize that they have fallen short of the ideals they had cherished for themselves? What can we do when, one fine day or night, we come to see that the bright self-image we had promoted in the eyes of others, and in our own eyes, is untrue to the more shaded original? In brief: “if I am guilty/hypocritical/‘fallen,’ then what?” Take the nameless “garrulous slave” whose inner monologue Camus makes us privy to in “The Renegade.” His moment of decision comes after his hopeless failure to convert the inhabitants of the city of salt, Taghâsa, to the god of love, in whose name he had dreamed of their conquest (Camus 1962: 36–42). For Jean-Baptiste Clamence in The Fall, as we averred above, the fall comes when this celebrated honnête homme fails to assist a drowning suicide one night on the Seine (Camus 1956b: 69–70). He realizes now that his pretence to being the noble defender of the weak and humble was just that: a pretence. Later, after he successfully represses the memory of this traumatic event, the repressed returns in the form of uncanny, derisive laughter he hears walking home one night some time later, beside the same river (Camus 1956b: 39, 96). Again echoing Camus’s earlier modes of the analysis of evil, both the renegade and Clamence, faced with these challenges, make their own leaps. “If I am guilty and worthy of scorn,” they 171

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reason falsely, “then we all must be guilty and worthy only of scorn.” This illogical but all-too-human leap, the reader can see, passes illegitimately from “I” to “we.” It does not do so by raising others charitably upwards, in the light of a chastened sense of one’s imperfections, however. Instead, it seeks to bring them all down to our own level. “I didn’t want their [particular others’] esteem because it wasn’t general,” Clamence tells us about his state of mind after his fall (Camus 1956b 93). His sole aim was to silence the laughter of his own conscience. Only a general, unqualified exoneration could perform this work. But Clamence does not turn to organized religion. Nor does he ask anyone’s forgiveness. He adopts, all by himself, the mantle of a new founder: assuming the uncanny mantle of a “judge penitent.” “After prolonged research on myself,” Clamence announces, “I brought out the fundamental duplicity of the human being” (Camus 1956b: 84). If everyone is guilty, his reasoning goes, then my own particular failings pale into insignificance. A kind of ersatz solidarity is even opened up: “I have no more friends; I have nothing but accomplices. To make up for this, their number has increased; they are the whole human race” (Camus 1956b: 73). In fact, the universe of the judge penitent is the “universe of the trial” that for Camus describes the totalitarian nightmare. “When we are all guilty, there will be democracy” (Camus 1956b: 136), Clamence tells us in a poetic flight: “the others get theirs too, and at the same time as we—that’s what counts. All together at last, but on our knees and with our heads bowed” (Camus 1956b: 136). The same (il)logic of dark absolution is differently explored in “The Renegade” in Exile and the Kingdom. As Camus confided to his mentor Jean Grenier, “The Renegade” is the story of an “intellectual turned communist . . . who ends up adoring the religion of evil” (Camus, at Orme 2007: 262, n. 4). The call of conscience which sounds at those moments in our lives when we confront our human weaknesses is for Camus a call to acknowledge the complexity of our condition and the limits to our intemperate egoism. We confront at such times the great difficulty of pursuing a truly virtuous life, which involves “a long-distance race, quite solitary and very exhausting” (Camus 1956b: 132–3). This difficulty is avoided if we instead accept the tempting but profoundly cynical notion that, since I or we evidently are not virtuous, virtue itself must be the sham. All at once, in this way, a monological simplicity is reinstated – and it is deeply significant that The Fall and “The Renegade” are Camus’s only two monologues: I had been misled, solely the reign of malice was devoid of defects, I had been misled, truth is square, heavy, thick, it does not admit distinctions, good is an idle dream, an intention constantly postponed and pursued with exhausting effort, a limit never reached, its reign is impossible. Only evil can reach its limits and reign absolutely, it must be served to establish its visible kingdom, then we shall see, but what does “then” mean, only evil is present, down with Europe, reason, honour, and the cross. (Camus 1956b: 54) In this world of universal culpability, pity, doubt, and dialogue are all to be suppressed. Superiority falls to those strong or (as they will say) “clear-sighted” enough to affirm this universal state of things without the “clemency” that Camus’s antihero’s surname in The Fall ironically evokes. A “judge penitent” condemns himself publicly first (“I am guilty”), in order to provoke others to recognize their comparable shame (“we are all guilty”), the better to ascend the mountain and reassume his lost, prelapsarian right to judge everyone without compunction (“but since I affirm this Truth, I have the right to rule over all you others who are still lost in illusory dreams of goodness”). In such a dispensation, cynicism replaces wisdom; grim decision responsibility; blind obedience or “compliance” the virtues; amoral resolution courage. Clamence and “the renegade” are two instances of the new kind of European philosopher whose advent Camus 172

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announced in 1948’s “Helen’s Exile” who philosophizes not with a hammer but (given the chance) with shock troops: For instance, you must have noticed that our old Europe at last philosophizes in the right way. We no longer say, as in simple times: “This is the way I think. What are your objections?” We have become lucid. For the dialogue we have substituted the communiqué: “This is the truth,” we say. “You can discuss it as much as you want; we aren’t interested. But in a few years there’ll be the police who will show you we are right.” (Camus 1956b: 45; 1987b: 151)

Concluding remarks In this chapter, we have examined three registers of Albert Camus’s continuing engagement with the problem, or problems, of evil. From his early work, Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism, we saw, Camus is in dialogue with Augustinian theology. He shares with the early Christians the acute sense that the problem of evil is the problem which should stand at the center of our thought. Yet, like the early modern metaphysical rebels, he disputes the theological resolutions of this problem. Unlike his Clamence or his “renegade,” Camus cannot accept the assignation of universal culpability to all human beings, including children and unbaptized infants, whether in order to save the supposition of an omnibenevolent deity or to salve our own senses of guilt. In short, like Voltaire, Camus rejects the responses of theodicy as either inadequate, callous, or simply disingenuous. He sees the modern totalitarian regimes’ claims to absolute truth and power as hideous secularized theocracies. In these, the leaders and their minions claim the same sovereign rights over life and death assumed by absolute monarchies, backed by churches, against whom early modern thought had legitimately rebelled. In what became his last works, by contrast, Camus undertakes penetrating analyses of the psychological or spiritual dimensions underlying people’s continuing attraction to such forms of absolute rule. Living well for Camus involves accepting one’s finitude and even, where appropriate, owning up to one’s ethical failings and moral guilt. By contrast, evil of the worst kinds can be rationalized when individuals instead “leap” to the comforting but cynical assessment that everyone is equally guilty (so I am no more to blame than anyone else) or else, as in forms of fascism, to the idea that the very ideas of virtue and goodness are cons, engendered by the weak to reign in the strong (what matter if I am not good, since the very idea is an illusion anyway?). Albert Camus died in a car crash on January 4, 1960, at age 46. It is impossible to know how his thought would have developed had Camus lived a natural span of life. The First Man, the novel he was working on at the time of his death, reflects Camus’s expressed desire in his last years to begin exploring, positively, and painting portraits of lives lived well, in solidarity with others, in and not despite human fallibility. This chapter has examined how the problem of evil, in its theological and moral, political, and psychological dimensions, underlie nearly all of his singular body of work.

Notes 1 In a note in the weeks preceding this 1946 speech, Camus reflected more strongly: “The only great Christian mind to look at the problem of evil in the face was Saint Augustine. His conclusion was the terrifying ‘nemo bonus’. Since then, Christianity has spent its time giving the problem temporary solutions. The result is there for everyone to see. It took time, but men are today poisoned by an intoxication that dates back two thousand years.They have had enough of evil, or they are resigned to it, which amounts to pretty much the same thing. But at least they can no longer put up with deception (le mensonge) on that subject” (Camus 1966: 92).


Matthew Sharpe 2 The following analysis reproduces in condensed form the analysis in Sharpe 2015: 125–34. 3 See Sharpe 2015: 125–6. Jeanson made this arguably justified charge against Camus in his unbalanced, polemical attack on Camus in Les Temps Modernes: that Camus “limits himself to considering revolutions from the point of view of a metaphysician” (Jeanson 2004: 87). 4 Compare: “‘Obey’, said Frederick the Great to his subjects, but when he died his words were: ‘I am tired of ruling slaves,’” in Camus 1971: 251. 5 A technical device that impresses God, for the record, no more than “some obscure coin” from Greece or Mexico (Camus 2008b: 1173). 6 In what follows, I again draw on the more extended analysis in Sharpe 2015: 318–46.

References Blumenberg, H. (1997) The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. R. Wallace, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Camus, A. (1948) “Trois Interviews,” in Albert Camus, Albert Camus Oeuvres Complètes II 1944–1948, Paris: Gallimard Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris: 2006, pp. 475–82. Camus, A. (1956a) The Rebel, trans. A. Bower, New York: Vintage. Camus, A. (1956b) The Fall, trans. J. O’Brien, New York: Vintage. Camus, A. (1962) “The Renegade,” in Exile and the Kingdom, trans. J. O’Brien, London: Penguin, pp. 30–48. Camus, A. (1966) Carnets 1942–1951, trans. P. Thody, London: Hamish Hamilton. Camus, A. (1968) Lyrical and Critical Essays, ed. P. Thody, trans. E. Conroy Kennedy, New York: Vintage Books. Camus, A. (1971) The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert, London: Penguin. Camus, A. (1974) Resistance, Rebellion, Death, trans. J. O’Brien, New York: The Modern Library. Camus, A. (1987) “Lecture in Athens on the Future of Tragedy,” in Lyrical and Critical Essays, ed. P. Thody, trans. E. Conroy Kennedy, Vintage: New York: 295–310. Camus, A. (1987b) “Helen’s Exile,” in Lyrical and Critical Essays, 148–53 Camus, A. (1978) Myth of Sisyphus, trans. J. O’Brien, London: Penguin. Camus, A. (2006) “Neither Victims nor Executioners” [1948] in Camus at Combat: Writing 1944–1947, ed. J. Lévi-Valensi, trans. A. Goldhammer, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. Camus, A. (2007) Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism, trans. R. Srigley, Columbia, MO, and London: University of Missouri Press. Camus, A. (2008) Notebooks 1951–1959, trans. R. Bloom, Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee. Camus, A. (2008b), “Orgueil,” in Albert Camus Oeuvres Complètes III 1949–1956, Gallimard Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris, 2008: 1169–73. Castoriadis, C. (1997) “The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy,” in C. Castoriadis, The Castoriadis Reader, Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Jeanson, F. (2004) “Albert Camus, or the Soul in Revolt,” in Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation, ed. D. Spritzen, trans. D. Spritzen, New York: Humanity Books: 79–106. Kant, I. (1999) Kant: Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason: And Other Writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Merton, T. (1995) “Seven Essays on Albert Camus,” in The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, ed. P. Hart, New York: New Direction. Orme, M. (2007) The Development of Albert Camus’s Concern for Social and Political Justice: “Justice pour un Juste,” Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. Neiman, S. (2004) Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Sharpe, M. (2014) “The Black Side of the Sun: Camus, Theology, and the Problem of Evil,” Political Theology 15:2, 151–74. Sharpe, M. (2015) Camus, Philosophe: To Return to Our Beginnings, Leiden: Brill. Sharpe, M. (2016) “A Letter to a Germanist Friend: Camus on Heidegger,” Journal of Camus Studies 8, pp. 221–50.



Recent secular explorations of evil

13 DELIVER US FROM EVIL The case for skepticism1 Phillip Cole

Introduction: the myth of evil In a review of Matthew Kramer’s book The Ethics of Capital Punishment: A Philosophical Investigation of Evil and its Consequences (Kramer 2011), Carol J. Steiker contrasts Kramer’s response to learning of the horrors of the Holocaust as a child with her own. As an eight-yearold, Kramer started to develop what ended up as a “purgative” rationale for the death penalty as a moral duty in the face of extreme acts. It seemed obscene to Kramer that the rest of humanity should have to devote resources to keeping leading Nazi perpetrators alive indefinitely. Steiker’s own response as a “standard American Jewish teenage girl” was to wonder “how many Germans (and others) could have come to see an entire people (my people) as not really people at all – as something less than human” (Steiker 2015: 367). She would later explain her work as a public defender in law: I viewed the representation of (allegedly) heinous criminals as an extreme civil rights work – the championing of the rights and dignity of exactly those people that rightthinking folks are inclined to view as “not really people” at all. I argued that by zealously representing those whom we are most inclined to hate, I was keeping the world safe for whoever else might at some point fall into that category – Jews, blacks, gays, etc. I hoped that by contextualizing my clients’ offenses and giving voice to their stories – especially when they were in fact guilty as charged – I was working against our collective tendency to “dehumanize” others, by combating this propensity in its most compelling form. (Steiker 2015: 367–8) For her, the challenge of the Holocaust was “to resist the human tendency towards the dehumanization of others, even (maybe especially) wrongdoers” (Steiker 2015: 368). These contrasting responses – the first focusing on an account of the agents who carried out these extreme actions and what should be done to them, the second focusing on understanding the conditions that can give rise to dreadful persecution on the scale of the Holocaust, especially the “collective tendency to ‘dehumanize’ others” – can be seen in the range of philosophical responses to human “evil.” My own response is the same as Steiker’s, and it is this collective 177

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tendency and its power that I describe in my book, The Myth of Evil (Cole 2006), which, in the United States, was given the subtitle Demonizing the Enemy. However, when I set out to research and write that book I had a very different intention – but three interesting things happened during my encounter with the concept of evil. The first was about how I understood evil and agency; the second about my relationship with two great moral philosophers, Kant and Nietzsche; and the third to do with philosophy itself as a discipline. When I decided to write a book on evil, I was convinced that philosophy, in its dominant form, was importantly mistaken about a key issue to do with agency. The view taken by the great moral theorists Hobbes, Hume, and Kant was that a human agent could not will “pure” evil – that is, to bring about human suffering for its own sake. Where an agent willed human suffering, it was for the sake of some other goal, such as power, pleasure, out of fear – this is “impure” evil. But pure evil lay outside the realms of the human. I decided this was a radical mistake – in the face of a human history filled with obscene atrocities at all levels, it seemed futile to deny that human beings could will pure evil. So I set about collecting evidence for my argument, looking at some of the worst cases of human cruelty – child murderers, torturers, terrorists, serial killers, including the perpetrators of the Holocaust. But then came my first surprise. Despite researching deeply into these events, I could make no sense of the idea of pure evil. Not only that; even the idea of impure evil ceased to make sense – in fact, the concept of evil itself began to dissolve into incoherence. By the time I wrote the book, I had arrived at a conclusion completely opposite to the hypothesis I began with – a form of “evil skepticism.” This is not skepticism that the concept of evil exists – it clearly does. And while in philosophy there are subtle and sophisticated theories of evil, my concern was that these conceptions have very little purchase on political and public discourse. The fact is that the concept of evil that dominates popular culture and politics is what I term the “monstrous” conception. This conception holds that some humans can freely and rationally choose to make others suffer purely for its own sake, but these people have crossed a boundary beyond the human – they are monsters in human shape, different from you and me and the rest of humanity. This conception is a powerful source of inspiration in fiction, where monsters with extraordinary powers, whether from folklore or outer space, are filled with malevolence toward us and want to destroy us for no reason other than this is what they want to do. But this conception has often crossed from the world of fiction into people’s understandings of reality. The popular media are quick to identify murderers, rapists, and others as monsters, and political leaders have also deployed the monstrous conception. To portray an other as an evil enemy is to close off any possibility of communication and negotiation, indeed of any need to understand anything about them. The only possible form of defense is their complete destruction. The second surprise was about my relationship with Kant and Nietzsche. As an undergraduate student I encountered Kant’s categorical imperative in the form: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end,” and this was a transformative moment in my philosophical and political life. This principle has underpinned my political thinking and action ever since. However, as I dug deeper into Kant’s encounter with the concept of evil, I saw my favorite moral philosopher become entangled in ever more complex knots with very little result (Cole 2006: 58–66).2 I realized that it was Nietzsche who pointed the way forward, because he asked the right question – not “how do we explain evil in the context of moral philosophy?” but “why do people want to use the concept of evil in the way they do?” (Cole 2006: 66–76). This brought about the third surprise, that philosophy may not be best placed to answer this question. And so, despite devoting my life to philosophical teaching and writing, very early in this book I stopped doing philosophy. I traveled through politics, psychology, 178

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psychoanalysis, literary and film theory, cultural theory, all of which told me much more in answer to Nietzsche’s question than philosophy. Even then I ended up in a surprising place, concluding that evil is not a philosophical concept, or a psychological one, or even a theological one – it has its home in mythology. Drawing heavily on the work of Neil Forsyth (Forsyth 1987 and 2003), I argued that the figure of the evil person in the contemporary discourse of evil is mythological. Just as Satan is a meaningful figure only in the context of the Christian mythological world history and makes no sense outside it, the evil figures that stalk our contemporary world have a similar role. When we describe someone as evil, we are not saying anything about their character or their motivations – we are instead making them a figure in a story in which they play a specific and prescribed role. And in making them such a figure we do away with any need to understand their history, their motives, or their psychology. Narrative characters have no such features, or rather they simply have the history, motives, and psychology ascribed to them by the narrative plot, those required to drive the story forward. If we were to look beyond the myth of evil, we may discover people very different to those we have constructed.

The philosophy of evil I was rejecting any philosophical theory of evil persons, a theory that claimed to be able to identify the properties that make a person evil, and/or claimed to be able to offer an explanation for their evil agency. In their paper “Speak No Evil,” Eve Garrard and David McNaughton respond to this rejection by describing it as a kind of “error theory” (Garrard and McNaughton 2012). What they mean is that, if there is no such thing as evil agency, then there can be no evil acts, and so the kind of moral horror we experience in response to the terrible things people do must be some kind of error on our part. This, they argue, is implausible. What a philosophical theory can do is enable us to understand this phenomenological experience of moral horror. A philosophical concept of evil action: categorises together those acts to which we respond with moral horror; the pressing task of a theory of evil is to provide an account of what features it is of such actions that justify our horror, and explain why they do so. (Garrard and McNaughton 2012: 17) In their account, part of the role of a philosophical theory of evil action is to make sense of our experience of moral horror. That is, of course, to make normative sense of it, not psychological sense. The theory can tell us when that response is appropriate or inappropriate by telling us when we are confronted with an act that is properly evil. We can make mistakes – we can experience moral horror when we shouldn’t, or fail to experience it when we should. For Garrard and McNaughton the theory of evil fills in the details of the experience – without it, or at least without the concept, there would be no experience of moral horror. “What the phenomenology delivers is not that acts are evil because we find them horrifying; rather it’s that we find them horrifying because they are evil” (Garrard and McNaughton 2012: 15–16). There are two possible claims being made here – first, that we will not experience moral horror without a concept of evil action, or a second, that we cannot make normative sense of our experience of moral horror without a philosophical theory of evil agency (allowing that a concept of evil action need not be a full-blown philosophical theory of agency). Whichever of these claims is being made, I would argue that we do not need a concept of evil action in order to experience moral horror, and we do not need a philosophical theory of evil agency 179

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in order to make normative sense of that experience. (See Chapter 15 for a discussion on the emotion of moral horror). There are different levels of experience to which the concept of evil has been historically applied. The first is the fundamental experience of extreme suffering in the world, in particular the suffering of innocents (traditionally this has specifically been human suffering); the second is the cause of that suffering, which can be either natural activities like disease or earthquake, or social, the results of human activity; the third is to human actions or inactions that cause suffering; and the fourth is to the human beings and their reasons, motivations, or dispositions that are taken to explain why those people carry out such actions. It is at the fourth level that philosophical theories of evil agency are supposed to do their work, focusing on the characteristics or dispositions or reasons that lead evil persons to carry out evil actions. And it is at this level that evil functions as an explanatory concept, such that our philosophical theory offers an explanation of why evil persons carry out evil actions. An explanatory concept of evil makes no sense at the first two levels without a theological or mythological framework, and, while philosophical theories of evil action apply at the third level, such theories can only tell us what properties make an action evil, not why it happened, and so again there is no explanatory role for the concept of evil at this level. There are two points of crucial importance here. The first is that any idea of evil at the third or fourth levels is parasitic upon the first two levels, and in the end all are parasitic on the first – the unjustified suffering of innocents is the core idea of evil. The second is that there is more than enough scope for the experience of moral horror at these first two levels without the need for any concept of evil action or any philosophical theory of evil agency. Not only that; there is expansive space here for illumination and explanation. These first two levels include the fact that human beings have done dreadful things to humans and other animals and caused terrible suffering. The important task is to understand the conditions under which such terrible events occur – a situational rather than a dispositional approach. These are conditions that Garrard and McNaughton say can play a part in explaining human action alongside the concept of evil, such as social, psychological, historical, and neurological conditions (Garrard and McNaughton 2012: 10), to which I would add political, economic and cultural conditions. This is to widen the second level beyond a simple binary between the natural and the human as causes of suffering, and to take in the social, political, economic, historical, cultural, neurological, and psychological complexities of the human condition. Certainly the other frames I explore in The Myth of Evil of psychology, psychoanalysis, and politics can contribute to our understanding at this level, as can economics, criminology, and other disciplines. And I do strongly believe that philosophy can contribute to our understanding here also. In that sense, my skepticism about philosophy is limited to those accounts that claim to provide theories of evil action and evil agency, and which claim to be explanatory. But it is this kind of theory that Garrard and McNaughton believe is needed to make sense of moral horror. They use an example from the conflict in the Congo: “a combatant who disembowelled and dismembered his adversary, and forced the dead man’s wife to gather up the dismembered body parts into a heap, on top of which he then raped her” (Garrard and McNaughton 2012: 14). We experience deep moral horror here, and if Garrard and McNaughton are right we need a philosophical theory of evil agency to make sense of the normative content of that horror, to make it moral horror. Their example comes from a report by Adam Hochschild, “The Rape of the Congo.” Toward the end of that report, Hochschild asks how people could do such terrible things to others, and provides an account, talking of brutalized and exploited soldiers as well as the complex and longstanding chaos in the Congo. He says:


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looking at people I meet, even an entire encampment of gold miners who are almost all ex-combatants, do I see those who look capable of killing hospital patients in their beds, gang-raping a woman like Rebecca Kamate, jabbing a young man’s eye with a bayonet? I do not. He asks: What turns such people into rapists, sadists, killers? Greed, fear, demagogic leaders and their claim that such violence is necessary for self-defense, seeing everyone around you doing the same thing—and the fact that the rest of the world pays tragically little attention to one of the great humanitarian catastrophes of our time. (Hochschild 2009) He does not use the word “evil” at any point in his article, and, although this does not prove anything concerning the arguments here, it seems significant to me that this is a report from a journalist in the field, who has born witness to the events and to the people involved, and experienced moral horror at first hand. Yet it does not seem to occur to him to use the word “evil” or the idea of evil people to make sense of it. Rather, he takes Carol J. Steiker’s turn in emphasizing the processes that have led these soldiers to see their victims as less than human. The crucial point is that moral horror is entirely appropriate and comprehensible at this situational level of analysis. In an earlier paper Garrard makes one of the most important and detailed attempts to arrive at a theory of evil agency (Garrard 2002). There she argues that the evil agent suffers a severe cognitive defect such that they are blind to reasons that count against the action they wish to perform. An “account of evil . . . which identifies the evil act as one in which the agent is impervious to reasons of the most conclusive kind against his act, is therefore apt for figuring in an explanation of the act in question” (Garrard 2002: 332). Saying the act is evil will “amount to saying that the agent acted as he did because he was blind to the reason-giving force of (for example) the suffering of his victims – he just couldn’t see that as a reason for him to desist” (Garrard 2002: 332). This explains why he performed this act – “because he couldn’t see that there were overwhelming reasons against it” (Garrard 2002: 332). Because the proposed account of evil locates it in the agent’s motivational state (that is, in the reasons he saw and failed to see), attributing evil to an action will always partially explain why the agent performed the act, since it will always reveal something about what the agent saw as reasons for acting, and about what reasons he failed to discern altogether. (Garrard 2002: 332–3) However, this account suffers the defects of any philosophical theory of evil agency, in that any such theory will be derivative and parasitic. It will be derivative because the sense of evil as the presence of overwhelming and undeserved suffering delivers all the content of the concept, and it is parasitic as the concept of evil gets its explanatory force by becoming attached to something else that does all the explanatory work. With Garrard’s account we might want to say: “This person is evil because they have a cognitive structure which leads them to perform evil actions.” But the concept of “evil” in this sentence plays no explanatory role. The cognitive structure has been identified as evil because of the actions and their consequences that flow from


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it, but describing that cognitive structure, or rather the person who has it, as evil does not give the concept any explanatory role to play at all. It is entirely parasitic. In their later paper Garrard and McNaughton point out that other moral concepts do play an explanatory role and that the concept of evil: takes its place among the other moral concepts, both those which are features of actions and also those which are features of character. And these moral concepts all figure quite naturally in our explanations of human actions and reactions; indeed, we will be unable to adequately understand how our fellow humans are behaving without some reference to virtues such as courage, generosity, and honesty, or vices such as selfishness, cruelty, and hypocrisy. (Garrard and McNaughton 2012: 8) But this is a significant shift in the understanding of the concept and its explanatory power. Luke Russell distinguishes between two kinds of philosophical theory of evil agency – the first is where “evil actions are marked out by a distinctive psychological feature that is comparatively unfamiliar and complex” (Russell 2014: 36); and the second is a form of “folk psychology” where evil actions are explained by an everyday psychological state we are familiar with such as malice or pleasure. The appeal Garrard and McNaughton make to concepts like courage, cruelty, and hypocrisy is an appeal to that latter kind of “folk psychology,” but the concept of evil Garrard develops in her earlier paper does not belong to this list – folk psychology concepts are relatively shallow and people who use them are making no claims about the deeper psychological structure of the agent described; Garrard’s concept of evil as a specific cognitive defect has psychological depth. And so the appeal to “shallow” concepts of folk psychology cannot persuade us that Garrard’s “deep” concept of evil makes philosophical sense.

The philosophy of dispositions Russell has his own “shallow” theory of evil agency, as opposed to Garrard’s “deep” theory. This is a dispositional approach where evil persons are those who are strongly and highly fixedly disposed to perform evil actions under conditions of autonomy: “an evil person is someone who is markedly likely to do evil when he is allowed to do what he wants to do, and whom we cannot easily change into a good person by using everyday techniques such as moral reasoning” (Russell 2014: 5). Evil personhood understood in this sense can act as a limited explanation of evil action: that a person has a strong and highly fixed disposition to perform evil actions is part of an explanation of why that person performed such an action in specific circumstances. If we are looking to philosophy to help, alongside other disciplines such as psychology and economics, in the project of understanding why human beings cause terrible suffering to their fellow humans and other creatures, Russell’s approach represents one of the paths I described at the start of this chapter. This is a view that Garrard shares, in pointing to the existence of a distinct type of human being as separate from the rest of humanity. This is not a complete explanation, but evil persons, as identified by the theory of evil agency, are going to be a very important part of the story. This brings me to a second strand of my concerns about philosophies of evil and another ground for my skepticism. The first was to do with the coherence of such theories and their claim to provide an explanatory theory of evil agency. The second concern is ethical: even if we can overcome the coherence objection, we should still be very cautious about philosophies of evil agency, precisely because of their tendency to pick out a separate type of human being, 182

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marked out by specific characteristics, as evil persons. I have pointed to the power of the discourse of monstrous evil in popular culture and politics, and in The Myth of Evil I argue that this discourse is much more powerful and pervasive than philosophy, and, if given the opportunity, it will feed off philosophy for its own ends. If philosophy claims that it can identify evil persons as distinct and different, it may find itself co-opted in political and social projects it finds deeply dangerous and disturbing, with little or no power to resist that co-option. In this chapter, I want to argue that some of the seeds of the monstrous conception are present within these philosophical theories of evil persons, and that if they are applied consistently, these philosophical theories can themselves lead to some deeply morally questionable practices. We can see those seeds in Russell’s theory, in his conclusion that “there really are some evil persons, who are not only strongly disposed to perform the worst kind of wrong actions, but are beyond redemption, for practical purposes, and should be treated as write offs” (Russell 2014: 196). Todd Calder identifies two aspects of Russell’s conception of evil personhood that get him to this conclusion – the fixity component and the autonomy component. The fixity component is designed to overcome the objection that, if we take Russell’s definition of evil actions, a great many people would count as evil persons when in fact such persons are comparatively rare. The fixity component tells us that the evil person not only carries out evil actions; they also have a fixed disposition to do so in the right conditions. The majority of people who perform evil actions do not have this fixed disposition, and therefore do not count as evil persons. This is to rule out the possibility of rehabilitation of evil persons, or at least make it very unlikely. They will not change their ways. Russell says: an evil person is someone who is strongly and highly-fixedly disposed to perform evil actions when in autonomy-favouring conditions, and hence . . . for practical purposes, an evil person is a moral right-off, whom we cannot expect to listen to our moral arguments or to be a suitable candidate for other attempts at moral reform. If this is what it means to demonize a person, then in judging that our enemy is an evil person, we are demonizing the enemy. (Russell 2014: 225) Russell refers here to the second component of his theory, the autonomy requirement, that people who perform evil actions in conditions where their autonomy is compromised in some way do not count as evil persons – evil persons are disposed to perform evil actions in situations where their autonomy is not compromised in anyway. This, again, meets the intuitive requirement that evil persons are comparatively rare. But it also makes them distinct from the rest of the humanity. Calder comments that the fixity component is meant to capture the “folk” intuition that evil persons are beyond reform and redemption, but asks whether these intuitions should be captured in a philosophical theory of evil personhood – just because they are strong “folk” beliefs, we do not have to include them in our theory, and perhaps, morally, we ought not to. Calder suggests that they reflect a psychological desire or need to see ourselves as essentially good persons, quite distinct from evil persons such that we are incapable of participating in bringing about great suffering for others. Evil persons are utterly unlike us; they are inhuman monsters (Calder 2015: 353). This makes our dealings with such people simple: there is no need to negotiate or engage with them in any way, or be concerned about their rehabilitation – we should “destroy them or isolate them from civilized society” (Calder 2015: 353). This is a philosophy of monsters, hardly a stone’s throw from the monstrous conception that motivates popular and political conceptions of evil people, with all its dangers. Calder comments: 183

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while it may be true that many people have the intuition that evil persons are moral write-offs, beyond reform and redemption, these intuitions may be based more on desires to have and promote positive images of ourselves than on clear reflection about the concept of evil personhood and human psychology. (Calder 2012: 354) Calder is also critical of the autonomy component of Russell’s account. As explained earlier, the component is there to allow us to limit the number of evil persons and not implicate the vast majority of people in evil personhood. Russell argues that the majority of people who took part in Stanley Milgram’s experiment, for example, were not evil despite performing evil actions. Russell expands this to what he describes as “Milgram scenarios,” in which people are being pressured and deceived, or “volatile and threatening political situations” (Russell 2014: 170). Calder asks how we are meant to know when a Milgram scenario holds. “Is any circumstance where we are influenced by surprising situational factors a Milgram scenario? If so, we may be in Milgram scenarios all of the time” (Calder 2012: 355). And if we extend this to include volatile, threatening or coercive political situations, Russell’s evil person becomes very rare indeed. Calder’s view is that there is something wrong – conceptually and perhaps ethically – with trying to identify evil persons as a distinct kind. While most of us are not evil persons under ordinary circumstances, “most, if not all, of us have the potential to be evil persons” (Calder 2012: 357). Rather than combat evil by seeking to isolate or destroy evil persons, the more urgent task is “to avoid creating social environments that are conducive to the emergence of evil persons” (Calder 2012: 357), recognizing that there is very little to prevent ourselves from being an evil person in those environments.

Beyond the philosophy of monsters Calder here refers to the option of the destruction of evil persons, and of course Russell does not suggest this. In fact, few philosophers of evil agency have anything to say about what should be done once we have used philosophical theory to identify evil persons. An exception is Matthew Kramer, in his book The Ethics of Capital Punishment (Kramer 2011). Developing what he calls his purgative theory of punishment, Kramer argues that: among the countless crimes committed in any jurisdiction, some are so iniquitous that the continued existence of the thugs responsible for them is a blot on the moral order of the community in which those thugs are kept alive. Sparing such criminals from execution is wrong, for their lives are of negative value. So long as they survive (past the time necessary for fair legal proceedings against them), they sully any community with which they are associated. (Kramer 2011: 186) A community is tainted – “its moral integrity is lessened” – by the continuation of the lives of those who commit such crimes. “To avert or remove that taint, a community must devote some of its resources to terminating the life of such an offender” (Kramer 2011: 187). Such a theory of punishment, says Kramer, must be underpinned by an account of the nature of evil (Kramer 2011: 187). The evil that underpins the purgative response has to be extreme or “extravagant.” The purgative rationale “extends only to instances of evil conduct that are so heinous as to render abominable the continued existence of their perpetrators” (Kramer 2011: 224). He uses two 184

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fictional case studies, of Richard and Joseph. Richard, a Satan worshiper, rapes, tortures, and mutilates people before murdering them, his victims ranging from infants to elderly women (Kramer 2011: 227). His crimes include cannibalism, eating people’s body parts sometimes while they are still alive to witness it. Joseph does not murder, but kidnaps girls aged between seven and 14, amputates their hands and legs below the knees without anesthesia, and proceeds to rape and torture them (Kramer 2011: 227–8). The community has a moral duty to execute such people. This need arises from the normative relationship between the community and the rest of humanity. To keep such people alive is to use resources to support “a life that constitutes a gross rebuff to human kind” (Kramer 2011: 237). For this to work, Carol J. Steiker argues that Kramer needs to provide a distinction between extravagantly evil acts and “ordinarily” evil acts that is clear enough for us to be able to know when the purgative response is appropriate. She is skeptical – evil acts can be on a continuum from the less to the more extreme, but there is no clear boundary point that can carry the immense moral weight Kramer needs to place somewhere. Kramer is confident such a boundary must exist but Steiker is not convinced he provides us with the material to find it, and even if it does exist she is skeptical about our ability to identify who has crossed it. She says: “the essential nature of people is more obdurately opaque than Kramer is willing to admit – especially the nature of evil doers, who by definition are exceptional and thus presumably not very much like us” (Steiker 2015: 370). We should also note that Kramer’s examples of Richard and Joseph are fictional, and in fiction we can write in details of people’s state of mind that we could never know in reality – Kramer’s accounts are filled with the mental states of their experiences, giving us special access into the minds of these people which is not, in fact, available to us. Behind Kramer’s account, argues Steiker, is a strong view of self-authorship, something like Russell’s autonomy condition, only perhaps much stronger. Kramer acknowledges that offenders’ genetic predispositions, impairments and environments may create “constraints” and “pressures” in their lives (241), but he insists that “evil offenders are reflective agents rather than automatons” and that they “form [. . .] their profoundly evil characters within the limits of their genes and environments” and are thus “rightly held fully responsible for their heinous crimes against humanity” (243). This view stands in sharp contrast with the work of many medical and social scientists that locates the roots of violent anti-social behaviour in strong genetic predisposition, social deprivation, and situational constraints, rather than in autonomous character formation. (Steiker 2015: 371) In the end, says Steiker, “Kramer’s clarity on the issue of extravagant evil is founded on an implausibly rigid view of human character formation and agency” (Steiker 2015: 372). Earlier I suggested that, if we are to illuminate and understand the conditions that give rise to great suffering that can be attributed to human activity, we need to look at the social, political, economic, historical, cultural, neurological, and psychological complexities of the human condition. Philosophy can make a contribution to this project, but needs to find a way of doing so which works alongside this range of different approaches. If we return to Calder’s concern about the scope of the Milgram scenario we can see this challenge clearly. Melissa Deary, in discussing the Milgram experiments and those of Philip Zimbardo, argues that their evidence challenges the dispositional thesis, by showing that any human agent, in the right conditions, is capable of evil action. We need to understand “the situational nature of the social context and the systematic nature of socio-political organization over the dispositional factors of individual 185

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psychology in the manifestation of evil” (Deary 2014: 182). Illumination and understanding will come with an awareness of those social contexts and organizational structures. However, as Deary herself comments, this does not cover those who meet Russell and Kramer’s autonomy component, who commit atrociously awful deeds without those social contexts and organizational structures, and it is perhaps in this space that philosophies of evil agency that seek to identify evil persons as distinct from the rest of humanity gain their hold. We come now to the final skeptical point – that the agents that Russell and Kramer, and others, identify as evil persons distinct from the rest of humanity do not exist: they are, once more, fictional or mythological. But surely, in the face of the history of human atrocities, this cannot be right. Garrard and McNaughton have provided us with a real case study, the soldier in the Congo who disembowels and dismembers his enemy and rapes his victim’s wife on the heap of body parts he forced her to gather together. And surely Kramer has provided another – whatever the flaws in his fictional description of Richard and Joseph, we know such people exist. These are people who are fixedly disposed to commit such actions under conditions of autonomy, and for whom there is no prospect of rehabilitation. But let us consider both of these cases more closely. In the first, if anything meets the conditions of the Milgram scenario or a volatile, threatening, or coercive political situation, surely it is the conflict in the Congo. This is especially so when we consider that a large number of combatants are child soldiers who have suffered from particularly extreme traumas. The World Health Organization estimates that there are at least 250,000 child soldiers involved in conflicts around the world, and, while rehabilitation of such children, some of whom have committed atrocities, is possible, it is a lengthy and expensive process (World Health Organization 2009). Alexandra Stein writes about a particular form of Milgram scenario, the cult, and about how people, including child soldiers, become members of cults, and how they can also escape and recover from them. She herself has been through that experience with others. “Something we all understand – and wish we didn’t – is how an ordinary person can end up donning a suicide vest and killing themselves along with their unknown victims” (Stein 2017: 2). Her most important conclusion is that “people who find themselves in cults, extreme groups or even totalitarian nations are ordinary people who did not choose that situation” (Stein 2017: 2). None of us is immune. “Cult recruitment is primarily the result of situational vulnerabilities not personality vulnerabilities (what social psychologists call situational as opposed to dispositional factors)” (Stein 2017: 59). The point is that these situational vulnerabilities can happen to anybody in the form of a normal life “blip” – some normal change in life situation such as leaving home for university, relationship breakup, or death in the family. All the research shows that there is no personality profile here (Stein 2017: 60). But these “banal” disruptions can have explosive endings: Endings of outsiders, of enemies, of followers, of children. We see the genocides of totalitarianism from Hitler to Stalin to Pol Pot. Or the smaller tragedies such as Aum Shinrikyo’s 1995 gassing of commuters in the Tokyo subway. Propaganda films show a young Londoner turned ISIS/Daesh executioner beheading hostages in Syria. Perhaps saddest of all are the children, from child soldiers to the children who die in cults sacrificed to the Leader’s will. (Stein 2017: 3) The search for a personality or disposition leads people to ask the wrong question: “What is wrong with those people that they chose to join such a group?” (Stein 2017: 4) – again an expression of the “folk psychology” belief that they must be a distinct type of person, not at all like us. On the contrary, Stein says: “We know that, in fact, most of these followers were 186

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ordinary people, people who got caught up in situations beyond their control” (Stein 2017: 4). This means that the right question is: What was the situation that these people found themselves in when these things happened? What processes unfolded in that situation to cause such a tragic and seemingly incomprehensible result? What is this dangerous environment to which we are not well adapted? Why, in fact, are most of us vulnerable to these influencing processes, given the right circumstances at the right time? (Stein 2017: 4) But, it might be replied, this is to focus on the wrong people. We need to identify the cult leader, the one who dominates and directs these people. Here we will find a personality type, someone with a dispositional framework unlike that of the rest of us. To an extent Stein would say this is right – unlike their recruits, cult leaders have a psychopathology that can be identified and understood (Stein 2017: 108–9). However, we will not find the evil person who meets Russell’s or Kramer’s autonomy condition. Drawing on the work of Theodore Adorno on the authoritarian personality, and on Edgar Schein’s findings that totalist leaders are anxious and insecure, Stein argues that such leaders display a specific kind of disorganized attachment that leads to aggressive and dominant behavior, a form of disorganization that in children is overrepresented in those with aggressive and controlling-punitive behavior disorders (Stein 2017: 111). These children have a background of maltreatment, especially controlling physical abuse. “This hostile or controlling-punitive form results from violent, frightening, controlling backgrounds, or what have been termed ‘hostile selfreferential parenting.’ These children respond to this situation by themselves becoming hostile and controlling towards others” (Stein 2017: 111). Although we do not know much about the background of totalist leaders, in some cases we know that they fit this background. Stein discusses some of these cases, such as David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians, and Adolf Hitler (Stein 2017: 112). What we see is a set of attributes that fit the model of the psychopath – shallow effect, lack of empathy, guilt, or remorse, superficial charm, egocentricity, manipulativeness, deceitfulness, grandiosity, and callousness in interpersonal relations (Stein 2017: 112). In the final chapter of her book Stein looks at possible solutions, and these are similar to those suggested by Calder. Rather than seek to identify and isolate problematic personalities, we need to look at social organization and community life, to the building of positive communities in an age of fragmentation (Stein 2017: 209). We need a public realm that: works in our fragmented society, one that does not yearn for an idealized past and a closed vision of community, but looks forward to an open, welcoming, safe and diverse, pluralist view of community life where children are valued, universal human rights are valued and varied cultural expressions that respect these rights are valued. (Stein 2017: 211) Such communities would, says Stein, produce fewer potential totalist leaders and fewer potential victims, and by strengthening positive connections between people, “provide fewer situational factors for the development of totalism” (Stein 2017: 208).3 This returns me to the central theme of this chapter and the evil skepticism it expresses, that philosophies of evil are in danger of asking the wrong questions, and so rendering philosophy irrelevant when it comes to the key task we face when confronted by human atrocity. That key task is to understand the conditions – political, social, economic, cultural, psychological – that underpin such atrocities and make them possible, and through that understanding to enable 187

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societies to guard against them by ensuring that we learn the lessons of history. By directing our focus to the evil agent, by attempting to define them and explain their actions in terms of a distinct type of person, separate from the rest of us, philosophical theories of evil have us searching in the wrong place, asking the wrong questions, with a danger that we will find ourselves lost in a world of folk psychology and folk beliefs about monsters that have their origin in mythology. However, I am not denying that the concept of evil is rich in meaning and deeply significant for our understanding of our history or culture, or that philosophy as a discipline can contribute to that understanding in rewarding and enlightening ways. What I am suggesting is that what we will come to understand in exploring the concept, is not why human beings have acted and continue to act in ways that defy our moral comprehension, but rather our own conception of humanity and its limit, and how that conception – and especially the idea of the limit – has been strategically distorted, deployed, and exploited, and most importantly how it contributes toward the dehumanization – the demonization – of others.

Notes 1 Thanks to Roshi Naidoo for her comments on this paper. 2 For a close and sympathetic reading of Kant’s treatment of evil, see Gavin Rae’s Evil in the Western Philosophical Tradition, forthcoming in 2019 (Edinburgh University Press). Another very helpful account is Burdman 2016. Also see Chapter 8 in this volume for an outline and discussion of Kant on evil. 3 It may be objected that this kind of situational approach means we cannot condemn any act we might consider to be immoral. I address this criticism in Cole 2006: 169–173 and will not repeat those arguments here.

References Burdman, J. (2016) “Between Banality and Radicality: Arendt and Kant on Evil and Responsibility,” European Journal of Political Theory, forthcoming (available Online First doi/full/10.1177/1474885116640725, accessed March 22, 2018). Calder, T. (2015) “Evil Persons,” Criminal Justice Ethics, 34/(3): 350–60. Cole, P. (2006) The Myth of Evil, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Deary, M. (2014) Making Sense of Evil: An Interdisciplinary Approach, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Forsyth, N. (2003) The Satanic Epic, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Forsyth, N. (1987) The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Garrard, E. (2002) “Evil as an Explanatory Concept,” Monist 85(2): 320–36. Garrard, E. and McNaughton, D. (2012) Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XXXVI: 1–17. Hochschild, A. (2009) “Rape of the Congo,” New York Review of Books, July 15, 2013: www.nybooks. com/articles/archives/2009/aug/13/rape-of-the-congo/?pagination=false (accessed April 19, 2013). Kramer, M.H. (2011) The Ethics of Capital Punishment: A Philosophical Investigation of Evil and its Consequences, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Russell, L. (2014) Evil: A Philosophical Investigation, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Rae, G. (2019) Evil in the Western Philosophical Tradition, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Steiker, C.S. (2015) “Can/Should We Purge Evil Through Capital Punishment?” Criminal Law and Philosophy 9: 367–78. Stein, A. (2017) Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems, London and New York: Routledge. Tanney, J. (2009) “Reasons as Non-causal, Context-Placing Explanations,” in Constantine Sandis, ed, New Essays on the Explanation of Behaviour, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. World Health Organization (2009) “Healing Child Soldiers,” Bulletin of the World Health Organization, Volume 87, Number 5: 325–404: (accessed March 21, 2018).



This chapter focuses on the issue of whether or not the term “evil” is an explanatory moral concept. That is, it’s about whether the concept of evil can help to explain the actions to which it is applied – the actions that count as evil actions.

The different senses of evil First we should note that people use the term “evil” quite readily and unselfconsciously in ordinary discourse, and they understand each other perfectly well when they do so. But we must also note that they use the term “evil” in several different ways. Sometimes it is used to mean everything adverse in human lives, embracing both moral evils such as wars and massacres, and natural evils such as drought and plague. On other occasions we use it more specifically to refer to the whole range of human immorality (as when we say “the evil that men do lives after them”). In this second usage, any wrongdoing can count as evil – we can talk about the evil of genocide, and also about the evil of malicious gossip (there is a slightly elevated, quasi-biblical quality about this use of the term). Sometimes, however, we narrow its reference still further, and reserve it for particularly horrifying kinds of action that we feel are to be contrasted with more ordinary kinds of wrongdoing, as when for example we might say, “That action wasn’t just wrong, it was positively evil.” The implication here is that there is a qualitative, and not merely quantitative, difference between evil acts and other wrongful ones; evil acts are not just very bad or wrongful acts, but rather ones possessing some especially horrific quality. It is evil in this third sense that I want to concentrate on in this chapter. There are some actions, some events, that we feel the need to describe in terms of their being evil in this more exclusive sense, in which we contrast their moral status with that of everyday wrongful actions. The terrible massacres of both the last century and this one, the hideous and endless ingenuity of their tortures, seem to require description in terms of evil in this exclusive sense because other kinds of moral condemnation do not capture their nightmarish horror. What I want to examine in this chapter is whether the concept of evil, used in this restricted sense, has the power to explain anything about the actions so described.


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Two explananda Why in general do we think that concepts should have explanatory power? The main thought seems to be that a concept that lacks explanatory power will be vacuous, will add nothing to the discourse in which it is deployed. A classic example that is often appealed to here is the concept of dormitivity, which is the power of certain substances to send people to sleep. To explain why a substance sends people to sleep by saying that it has dormitive power appears to tell us nothing at all about the substance; the appeal to dormitive power produces nothing but the tautological claim that this substance sends people to sleep because it has the power of sending people to sleep. But we want our claims about evil actions to do more than rehearse tautologies; we want them to help us understand the actions better, and explanation is (among other things) something that increases understanding. So in attributing evil to an agent or action, what might we be looking to explain? (Both evil actions and evil persons require explanation, but in this chapter I’ll be focusing principally on evil actions, mainly because they seem prior in some way to evil agents – we won’t be able to understand what it is to be an evil person unless we have some prior understanding of what it is for an action to be evil.) We want to categorize certain kinds of wrongful action as special in some way, as especially chilling or horrific. So our first question is whether there is some distinctive feature that such actions possess, or are we just using the term evil as a simple intensifier, to pick out cases of extreme wrongness (or badness), differing only in degree, and not in kind, from other cases of wrongness? Second, there is the question of why such acts are performed. We understand human action in terms of the reasons that the agents take there to be for acting: how are we to account for some agents thinking they have reason to act in these peculiarly terrible ways? Any answer to this question will need to reveal something about the state of mind of the agent, about the favorable light in which he saw the act, but it does not follow that appeal to the agent’s character (i.e., his settled dispositions to act) will necessarily be helpful. The high level of popular participation in some of the most terrible massacres of the twentieth century strongly suggests that we need an account of evil under which evil acts can be committed by agents who do not necessarily have evil characters. Without such an account, we would have to accept that large, perhaps very large, numbers of people are evil, and I am assuming (perhaps optimistically) that this is implausible. What is needed is an account of the agent’s state of mind in committing the act in question, and this need not entail anything about her settled dispositions. If the attribution of evil to an action is to have explanatory power, it should at least contribute to the answers to the questions presented above.1 On the face of it, claiming that the acts in question are evil does not by itself reveal why we group just those wrongful acts together in one category, or why we respond with horror to them. Nor does it explain why the agents committed them. This is not a problem specific to evil. Identifying an act as benevolent does not by itself explain why we group together certain acts in this moral category and respond to them with admiration, or why some agents commit such acts. But in the presence of an account of what benevolence amounts to, such questions are at least partly answered: to characterize an act as benevolent is to identify it as one in which the agent’s reason for acting was the promotion of the welfare of others. This already tells us something about why the agent acted as he did. Similarly, an adequate account of what evil is would show why certain acts are to be categorized together under that heading; why we respond as we do to them; and (at least to some extent) why the agents performed them. In the case of benevolence, we take this kind of explanatory power for granted, so clear is our grasp of what benevolence amounts to. The nature of evil is more obscure, but I shall argue that appropriate accounts of evil are available, and that once one of them is in place the concept of evil can do explanatory work. 190

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Objections to using the term “evil” For those who have the appropriate theological commitments, the term “evil,” with its supernatural or even Satanic connotations, is not distinctively problematic – it inherits such problems as that general metaphysical context presents, but it finds its natural home there. But purely secular thinkers also feel the need to use this term; they too want to mark off certain kinds of actions as special, as qualitatively different from more ordinary kinds of wrongdoing. However, it is not clear what it is we are claiming when we attribute evil to an action or agent in a purely secular context, and the general obscurity surrounding the term makes some thinkers very reluctant to appeal to the idea of evil as part of a serious treatment of horrifying moral phenomena. So a further question I want to address is whether this reluctance is justified, or whether on the contrary a legitimate place can be found for the idea of evil in our secular understanding of the moral domain. Of course, if evil turns out to be capable of playing an explanatory role in a secular account of human actions, then this will strengthen its legitimacy as an element in the web of secular moral concepts. One of the fullest philosophical presentations of skepticism about evil has been provided by Phillip Cole in his The Myth of Evil.2 I can’t do full justice to his views here, but his central claim is that (1) in the most widespread and popular conception of evil, evil actions are done freely and rationally in order to cause the suffering of innocents for its own sake; (2) that judging people to be evildoers is to judge them to be monsters outside the bounds of the human race; and (3) the deployment of the concept of evil is morally suspect. But none of these claims is plausible. Neither the philosophical nor the popular conception of evil (assuming there to be a single version of those conceptions in either category) has it that in evil actions the suffering of innocents must be brought about purely for its own sake. It’s widely believed that a range of possible (and mainly discreditable) motivations – such as the desire for power, or the taking of sadistic pleasure, or the fulfillment of various ideological commitments – exists for the commission of evil acts. Second, even if we do conceive of evildoers as monsters, it doesn’t follow that they are outside the bounds of the human race, nor does it follow that we judge them to be. It all depends on the view we have of human nature. With a not implausibly pessimistic view of that nature, we will see evildoers as realizing the dark possibilities within many or even most of us, waiting to be brought to fruition by the temptations provided by the circumstances around us. (See for example the work of Philip Zimbardo, who offers a situational, rather than a dispositional, account of evil.) We do evil because of the institutional pressures and constraints upon us.3 Cole’s emphasis on the explanatory power of situation seems very congruent with this view, but it certainly doesn’t involve seeing evildoers as utterly different from the rest of the human race. Third, once we reject these unwanted and unwarranted implications, there is no reason to see the deployment of the concept of evil as morally suspect. It is judgmental, undoubtedly, but so is the concept of wrongdoer, and the concept of wrongful action, and indeed the whole array of moral concepts that we use to assess the world around us and its inhabitants. The debate about the usefulness, and indeed the legitimacy, of the concept of evil can also be seen taking place entirely outside the confines of philosophy, and it is illuminating to see the extent to which Cole’s concerns are mirrored in the debate. A notable example of the reluctance to appeal to evil can be seen in the historian Inga Clendinnen’s collection of essays Reading the Holocaust.4 Clendinnen does not seem to endorse the view of evil motivation that Cole proposes, and this is not surprising, since she is dealing with a specific historical phenomenon about which quite a lot is known. It would be hard after the work of Hannah Arendt5 and others to assume that people whose acts are regarded as evil (by those who are prepared to 191

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deploy that concept) are motivated entirely by the desire to bring about the suffering of innocents for its own sake – there were too many evildoers with diverse motivations for that to be a plausible story. But Clendinnen certainly shares the second and third of Cole’s concerns mentioned above. One of her principal aims in the essays is to reach some understanding of the major perpetrators of that event, and in pursuit of that aim she explicitly rules out reference to claims about evil. She regards such reference as a barrier to the kind of understanding she seeks,6 and there seem to be two main reasons for this. First, she regards the appeal to evil as nonexplanatory: it is a “dismissive classification”7 that is “of no use whatsoever when it comes to teasing out why people act as they do,”8 and hence of no use in explaining the enthusiastic killings and massacres by the Nazis and their local helpers.9 Second, Clendinnen claims that references to evil take us beyond the domain of the human to somewhere “sinister and metaphysical,”10 “beyond the moral pale . . . and therefore beyond the possibility of human understanding,”11 inhabited by inhuman automata or monsters12 rather than human beings whom we can hope, to some extent at least, to understand. Let me start with the charge of explanatory inadequacy. Here the thought seems to be, first, that reference to evil should not appear as part of an attempt to understand the perpetrators unless it can explain in some way what was done, and, second, that the idea of evil cannot meet this constraint: it cannot explain the perpetrators’ actions. But neither of these claims is entirely plausible. It is not immediately obvious that in our account of a great moral catastrophe such as the Holocaust we should only appeal to those features that pull clear explanatory weight in our understanding of human action. Reference to a particular kind of feature may be appropriate even if it isn’t explanatory. The explanatory force of thin moral concepts such as right or wrong, good or bad, is widely contested, but any attempt to understand the perpetrators of that catastrophe that did not make at least implicit reference to these properties of their actions would be hopelessly inadequate. What would we make of an account of the Holocaust that wasn’t obviously committed to the view that it involved the most terrible wrongdoing? And of course Clendinnen is clearly so committed. Furthermore, the thick moral concepts such as courage or kindness, cruelty or cowardice, are clearly indispensable for the historical description of human action, let alone its explanation, and as a matter of fact Clendinnen makes no attempt whatever to do without them – e.g., she talks about the “bully-boy geniality” of the barracks culture of the Order Police barracks; of the “toughness of spirit” of the Sonderkommandos, which she admires; of the “heroic act of compassion” of the woman doctor in the Warsaw ghetto who killed the children in her care to save them from a worse fate at Nazi hands. Indeed, she even uses (rather than mentions) the term “evil” in her description of Eichmann.13 The concept of evil is one element in the whole nexus of our moral concepts, and in general their appearance in our account of perpetrators’ actions is unobjectionable and indeed unavoidable. So appeal to the moral concepts seems to be legitimate even if they do not pull any very noticeable weight with respect to the explanation of action. But as I have suggested at the start of this chapter, we should not take for granted the claim that there is no explanatory work being done here. Nicholas Sturgeon, for example, has argued extensively for the explanatory power of moral concepts.14 And clearly Clendinnen herself regards such concepts as able to do explanatory work: she regularly appeals to moral features of agents to explain their behavior. She wants “to believe that [Primo Levi] survived because of his remarkable qualities: the curiosity . . . and the humour and compassion,”15 and, though she recognizes that actually it was luck that was primarily at stake, she obviously regards such characteristics as the kind of consideration that does have explanatory power. She says of Gitta Sereny that “she is 192

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consistently honourable in her relationship with Franz Stangl [commandant of Treblinka], as with all her interview subjects, because she is by nature honourable”;16 of Rudolph Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, she remarks that “the man that we see is energetic, vain, and much too frank in damaging self-revelation to be classed as a hypocrite.”17 Clearly the moral categories used in these quotations are regarded as doing explanatory work, as accounting for some aspects of the perpetrators and their deeds. And of course there is nothing remarkable about Clendinnen’s use of these categories; this is how historians, and the rest of us, standardly make sense of our fellow human beings. Qua moral concept, then, there can be no objection to the concept of evil on grounds of explanatory inadequacy. The other moral concepts are sufficiently explanatory to figure in the historical understanding of human action. If there is a problem with evil, it must be because of the kind of concept it is, because of the place it occupies in the matrix of our moral understanding of human behavior and character. And this takes us to Clendinnen’s second objection to the concept of evil: she does indeed see it as an appeal to something transhuman or inhuman, something alarmingly “metaphysical,” the attribution of which implies that the agents in question are monsters unlike the rest of us, and inaccessible to human understanding. Now if we retain the connection between evil and the Satanic, then this view of the concept may be justified. But that is the theological conception of evil (at least, one fairly crude version of it) and no secular thinker should expect to appeal to it. If there is room for a secular account of evil at all, then it will not have these transhuman implications. Perhaps it might be argued that without the sinister metaphysics, there wouldn’t be anything recognizable as evil left. But the presence of so many secular references to it casts doubt on this suggestion. People who have no belief of any kind in the Devil find a use for the concept of evil. Of course, it is possible to hold something like an error theory of evil: the view that its use does imply something Satanic or at least supernatural, but that what is implied is just false, and hence no statements referring to evil can be true. In using the term, on this account, we are suffering from something like an intellectual hangover from a religious past. This view is possible, and in the absence of a secular account of evil it may even be plausible. But we need to see first whether there is a satisfactory secular account of evil, and, if there is, an error theory will lose its appeal. We should, however, also note that we do not have to accept the polarities just as they are set up by Clendinnen. She thinks that we should not regard the perpetrators as monsters, since this will exclude them from the domain of human understanding. But when we hear or read of the tortures that these men (and sometimes women) devised, we do think they are monsters – what more would an individual have to do to be classifiable as a monster? They are the stuff of nightmares. We could, however, regard the perpetrators as monsters without thinking that this cuts them off in some radical way from the rest of the human race. To do this, we would have to give up the picture of human nature as intrinsically good, or at least as morally neutral. But this picture is not in any case a plausible one – the work of Browning18 and Goldhagen19 that Clendinnen cites so approvingly, and the depressing evidence of much of the rest of the terrible twentieth century, not to mention the continuation of many of these horrors into the twenty-first century, suggests fairly strongly that ordinary humans can all too readily become monsters, and that understanding monsters is what we will have to do if we are not to give up on the project of understanding ourselves. But the very idea of a monster that is also a human being just like us, indeed one of us, is part of what would be treated in a secular theory of evil, so here we see another reason to develop such a theory. So Clendinnen’s rejection of appeals to the idea of evil is in some respects misplaced, since (1) concepts that are not obviously explanatory may still play a useful role in our account of 193

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human behavior; (2) in any case it has not yet been shown that the concept of evil cannot play an explanatory role;20 and (3) attributing evil to agents or their actions does not necessarily imply that they are radically unlike the rest of the human race. Nonetheless, her reservations about appealing to evil do have some legitimacy, in the absence of a secular theory. Without such a theory, we cannot know if the secular concept of evil can do explanatory work; we cannot fend off an error theory of evil, and we cannot fully capture how terrible are some aspects of human nature – the nature of ordinary human beings.

A theory of evil There are various forms that a secular theory of evil action can take.21 Some focus on the outcomes of the evil act, and say little or nothing about the agent’s psychological state; others focus more exclusively on the state of mind of the evildoer, and may involve investigations into the psychology of evil and how the evildoer comes to have that distinctive psychology. Here I will offer what might be called a hybrid view of the question “What is it for an act to be evil?”, making appeal both to the reasons against carrying out the evil act and to the state of mind in which such reasons get no purchase on the evildoer’s motivational state. With that on the table, we can then begin to see if such an account could make less plausible an error theory of evil; could present us with a way of seeing major perpetrators as both monstrous and human like us; and could show how the concept of evil can do explanatory work. What, then, is it for an action to be evil?22 The first thing to note is that the very tempting view, that the evil action is the one that produces huge amounts of suffering, is not satisfactory. The production of enormous suffering is neither necessary nor sufficient for an act to be evil.23 It is not sufficient because all wars produce huge amounts of suffering, and yet not all wars are evil, in the restrictive sense that is the topic of this chapter. Many people regard World War II as a morally justified war, and one thing we can be certain of is that evil actions are not morally justified. But the Allies who declared and waged World War II produced enormous suffering, so this can’t be sufficient for evil. Nor is it necessary: there is a kind of small-scale horror, like an exquisitely detailed miniature, which produces suffering of too limited an amount to meet the requirement in hand, and yet is still unproblematically evil.24 If we cannot characterize evil purely in terms of the terrible suffering it produces, where else might we look to find its distinguishing features? It might be thought that the evil act should be seen as the dark counterpart of the supererogatory act: that just as we have the supererogatory act at one end of the spectrum of moral excellence, so we have the evil act at the other, negative, end. But this thought, even if true, is unlikely to be very illuminating about the nature of evil, since there is a very notable disanalogy between supererogatory acts and evil ones. Supererogatory acts are morally praiseworthy, but not morally obligatory – they’re outside the scope of duty, and in some sense above and beyond it. If we think of a hierarchical scale of moral action, we think of some actions as morally permissible – morally speaking, it’s fine if we do them, and fine if we don’t. Brushing your teeth after breakfast might be an example. Other actions are morally obligatory: we’re obliged to do them, and we’ll be doing wrong if we omit to carry them out. Such actions are our duty; sometimes they’re easy to do, such as picking up our own litter; sometimes they’re very hard to do, as when it’s our duty to look after a very demanding and tiresome patient, and do this with forbearance and perhaps even with good cheer. In such cases we may well sympathize with the person who fails to do this kind of duty, and admire him when he does manage to carry it out. But we can still see his task as, in the appropriate circumstances, his duty, as morally obligatory. In contrast, there are some highly admirable actions that morality does not require of us, perhaps because they’re 194

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so very hard to do or go so profoundly against our usual reasons for action, for example our usual reasons for preserving our own lives. These actions can be utterly admirable but still not obligatory for us to do. These are the supererogatory acts, and they’re outside the domain of moral requirement. At the other end of the hierarchy, below the permissible actions, lie the wrongful ones. This is the domain of the prohibited, the forbidden actions: all the actions here are ones that it’s our duty not to do. But evil acts aren’t outside the scope of prohibition: they fall squarely within the domain of the forbidden acts. They aren’t in any sense below and beneath the area of prohibition; on the contrary, they are in many cases the most prohibited ones of all – we are in the most serious breach of our duty if we perform any one of them.25 So, however we are to understand the nature of supererogation, it seems unlikely to reveal what we want to know about the nature of evil. There is no structural similarity between evil and supererogation in terms of their relation to other moral categories. Another possibility for developing an account of evil is to focus on features of the agent, and in particular his motives for acting. Colin McGinn26 has adopted such a strategy in his proposal that the evil act is one committed by an agent who derives pleasure, noninstrumentally, from the pain of others; where the agent’s motive is to cause suffering for no reason other than that it provides pleasure to the agent.27 No doubt such acts often are evil (just as acts that produce huge amounts of suffering are often, though not always, evil). But this is not enough to ensure that the proposed analysis is satisfactory. First, it rules out from being evil the acts of the desk murderers who, though perfectly ready to produce appalling horrors, feel no particular pleasure at the misery they cause (although it doesn’t follow that they feel any regret either). Eichmann is usually cited as an example of such an agent, and, though it may not actually be true of Eichmann that he took no pleasure in the suffering he caused, nonetheless that possibility should not be ruled out by our account of evil (nor should the account force us to the broadly unacceptable alternative of denying that Eichmann’s acts were evil). Second, not all cases of pleasure-taking in the pain of others are evil. It depends what other morally relevant features of the action are present. The sadist who, knowing and regretting his propensities, tries to harness them to some good end (perhaps by working in a field where distress at the pain of others would be a positive handicap) need not be acting evilly, though there may still be some morally deplorable element in his actions. What McGinn has done is identify a feature that will make an action evil if there are no other redeeming features in it. But there are other motives that are prima facie evil in the same way: the aim of dominating others (which need not involve taking pleasure in their pain, or indeed hurting them at all) may also, if it appears without any other redeeming characteristics, be sufficient to make an action evil. Third, there are many cases of evil where the pain of others is sought instrumentally, regardless of whether pleasure is taken in it by the evildoer. Think of the torturer who works for hire, torturing in order to extract information or concessions for his paymaster. He may take little or no pleasure in the pain he inflicts, but he holds his victims in such indifference or contempt that their suffering counts for nothing at all to him. What he does seems evil, but nothing in McGinn’s analysis accounts for that. So overall it is hard to see a privileged role in our understanding of evil for the taking of pleasure, noninstrumentally, in the pain of others. However, there are other ways in which the agent’s motives – i.e., the reasons that she takes there to be for acting – can figure. The theory that I am going to propose suggests that the evil act can be identified by reference to the reasons that the agent sees, and fails to see, for acting. Here I am drawing on an account given by John McDowell of action at the other end of the 195

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moral spectrum: McDowell proposes that we can understand the virtuous agent, and distinguish her from the merely continent agent, by reference to the phenomenon of silencing.28 The continent agent overcomes the temptations that she experiences, and does what it is right for her to do. The virtuous agent, by comparison, silences rather than overcomes temptation: for her, the tempting considerations, which would in other contexts be genuine reasons for action, lose their reason-giving force in the presence of the reasons that there are to do the right thing. So, for example, the continent agent sees that it is right for her to give a substantial amount of money to a charity for helping the victims of some terrible natural disaster. She feels some temptation to keep the money for herself, since there are things she would like to buy with it, but with a certain amount of struggle she overcomes these temptations and donates the money. The virtuous agent (whom we need not at all suppose is normally indifferent to money) is by contrast unmoved by what she might purchase for herself were she to keep the money. She is so gripped by her understanding of the needs of the victims, so fully aware of how terrible things are for them, that the prospect of spending the money on herself has no motivational force. For the virtuous agent, the considerations that make the donation right silence the reason-giving force of the opportunity to spend some money on herself. There is nothing for her to overcome, and hence there is no struggle. We need here to distinguish between what we might call metaphysical silencing on the one hand and psychological silencing on the other. The virtuous agent, grasping the reasons as they really are, sees that, in the presence of the reasons that make the action right, other considerations cease to be reasons at all – they are metaphysically silenced. But this can be contrasted with a total failure to see that certain considerations are reasons at all, even when they are, and this we might call psychological silencing. Both forms of silencing will appear in the theory of evil that I am going to sketch out. According to this theory, the evil action is one in which the agent is entirely impervious – blind and deaf – to the presence of significant reasons against his acting. It is not just that he allows less important considerations, such as his own power or pleasure, to outweigh these more forceful considerations, e.g., the suffering and loss of life of others; rather, he is completely insensitive to these features’ reason-giving force. For him, there is nothing to be outweighed; he has (psychologically) silenced such considerations, and is unable to see that they are reasons for acting or refraining from action. However, the mere fact that the agent has silenced – is entirely impervious to – the reasons that genuinely are present is not sufficient to make his act evil. There may be very good reasons for visiting our elderly parents, say, but someone who just doesn’t see them, who just does not care at all about his lonely old mother, cannot really count as acting evilly (in the sense required). He may be cold and heartless, but that is insufficient for evil. More needs to be said about the structure of the reasons that the evildoer has silenced. As is suggested in McDowell’s account of the virtuous agent, some reasons are so powerful that they have the effect of metaphysically silencing considerations that in other contexts would have reason-giving force. The possibility of saving a modest amount of money is a perfectly good reason for buying one kind of fruit, say, rather than another. But if there is only one way to protect my much-loved child from a disease that will lead to a terrible and lingering death, then the fact that the protection will cost me the same modest amount of money is no kind of reason at all for not purchasing it. The reason I have to protect my child is a metaphysical silencer for modest sums of money – in its presence they lose their reason-giving force. It’s not that saving a few pennies is a reason to refrain from purchasing the treatment that is outweighed by the stronger reason to protect the life of the child; rather, in the context of saving the child’s life, saving a few pennies is no reason at all against getting the treatment. 196

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Consider also the woman who betrays her neighbor (whom she’s always disliked), and the Jewish family the neighbor is sheltering, to the Gestapo. The unlikability of neighbors is often a perfectly good reason for action, but in the presence of the terrible fate awaiting them at the hands of the Gestapo their unlikability loses its reason-giving force. The threat of that fate is a metaphysical silencer for considerations such as unlikability. What the evildoer does is (psychologically) silence reasons that are themselves (metaphysical) silencers. On this account, the evil act turns out to be one performed by an agent who is suffering from a profound cognitive defect – an inability to grasp the presence of reasons of the first importance. It is not, of course, that the evildoer fails to see that the considerations that constitute these reasons are present in the circumstances: the torturer knows very well that he is causing appalling pain to his victim – that’s what he’s aiming at, after all. What he fails to grasp is that the pain that the victim is suffering is an overwhelmingly strong reason for him to desist. He fails to see its reason-giving force.

Using evil as an explanatory concept I am not aiming to defend this account of evil here (I think there are some cogent objections to it, in particular that at best it only provides sufficient grounds for an action being evil, rather than the more elusive necessary requirements). What I want to do is discuss whether an account of this kind could meet the requirements suggested above: can it fend off an error theory of evil; can it accommodate the idea of something monstrous in human nature; can it play an explanatory role? First, this is a fairly formal theory of evil: it says nothing at all about what the reasons are which are silenced by the evil agent, and hence it can accommodate a variety of different normative moral theories. (The cases considered above are just examples, and could if necessary be replaced by others driven by different moral commitments.) Unless we have a general error theory of morality, there seems no reason why appeals to evil, construed in this way, should plausibly be seen as the result of systematic error. Second, it seems to allow for a recurrent feature in the phenomenology of evil, namely our sense that there is something monstrous about the evil agent. The picture here is one of severe cognitive defect, resulting in the most terrible distortions of practical reason. The evil act is one in which the agent can’t even see that there is a reason of the most important kind against his action. What kind of a condition would you have to be in to fail to hear the shrieks of your victims as any kind of a reason against torturing them? A very dreadful condition indeed, given how central practical reason is to our conception of what it is to be a person. So perhaps here, in the idea of a deformed and distorted capacity for practical reasoning, we find an explanation of the sense that the people who perform these dreadful acts have something monstrous about them. But there is nothing in this way of construing evil that suggests that these monsters are totally cut off from the rest of us; on the contrary, it leaves entirely open the possibility that such blindness could affect others of us, if we allow ourselves to get into the cognitive states characteristic of evildoers. Finally, can this account of evil play an explanatory role? For evil, as for any other consideration, whether it is explanatory or not will depend on what question is being asked, and what range of alternatives are being considered.29 If the question is: “Why did he commit an evil act?” and the answer is: “Because he’s evil,” then indeed little has been explained. Here we are far too close to that paradigmatic case of nonexplanatoriness, the appeal to opium’s dormitive powers to account for its ability to send people to sleep.30 But a theory of evil should enable us to avoid such vacuities by providing a way of filling out what is being attributed to an act when 197

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it is called evil. And the filled-out account can at least to some extent help to explain why the evildoer performed the act in question. We understand human actions in terms of their explanations, and we explain action by citing the reasons that agents take themselves to have for acting as they do. The account of evil outlined above, which identifies the evil act as one in which the agent is impervious to reasons of the most conclusive kind against his acting, is therefore apt for figuring in an explanation of the act in question. So if the question is: “Why did the agent perform this chilling, horrific act?” then identifying the act as evil will, on this account of evil, amounts to saying that the agent acted as he did because he was blind to the reason-giving force of (for example) the suffering of his victims – he just couldn’t see that as a reason for him to desist. This has explanatory force: it shows (to some extent) why he performed this act (as opposed to some other less dreadful one), because he couldn’t see that there were overwhelming reasons against it; and it also explains (to some extent) why this agent (rather than the ones who refrained) performed the act, since other agents might have been able to see what this agent couldn’t see. Because the proposed account of evil locates it in the agent’s motivational state (that is, in the reasons he saw and failed to see), attributing evil to an action will always partially explain why the agent performed the act, since it will always reveal something about what the agent saw as reasons for acting, and about what reasons he failed to discern altogether. There is, of course, a great deal that will not be explained by appealing to this account of evil. It will not, for example, explain why the agent is blind to these considerations. But that is a different issue – how people come to be evil – and one to be investigated by psychology and sociology and history rather than by philosophy. The explanatory power of the concept of evil may be quite limited; it is not, however, entirely negligible. It might, however, reasonably be claimed that if this concept is to be truly explanatory then it should be able to do more than just account for one kind of contrast – e.g., the contrast between performing and not performing a particular kind of act – since otherwise the concept may just label the phenomenon rather than explain it.31 This requirement may be another version of one we have already met (what we might call the “dormitivity worry”), but in any case the proposed account of evil can meet it. Clendinnen cites Rudolph Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, as comparing assaults on himself in prison, in 1946, by a Polish-Jewish guard, with the behavior of the guards at Auschwitz, claiming that the comparison showed that controlling guards is always difficult and hence he was not to be blamed for the excesses of those who were under his command. As Clendinnen says, “The gross incommensurability of the two situations seems, quite simply, to escape him.”32 Where Hoess sees similarities, we in contrast see a huge disanalogy between the two situations, on account of the incomparably greater magnitude of the suffering of the victims at Auschwitz and their utter innocence compared to Hoess’s own blood-soaked guilt. On the proposed account of evil, Hoess was impervious to the reason-giving force of that innocence and suffering – he did not at Auschwitz see it as any kind of reason to desist. That same cognitive defect explains his inability to see the moral difference between the situation of the guards at Auschwitz and the situation of the Polish Jew guarding him. At the start of this chapter, two phenomena were proposed as suitable for explanation by appeal to the concept of evil. The first is our readiness to identify a subset of the class of wrongful actions, members of which provoke in us a special response of horror. The second is the readiness of some agents to commit these acts, against which there seem to be such overwhelmingly powerful reasons. The theory of evil that has been sketched out here seems able to explain (to some extent) both of these phenomena. We identify this subset of wrongful acts because its


Does the term “evil” have any explanatory power?

members have something in common (namely, that they are all performed by agents who are silencing reasons of the greatest importance against acting), and they provoke such horror in us because of the terrible deformation of practical reason that this silencing constitutes. We can explain (to some extent) why agents are prepared to commit these horrific acts, where there are such weighty considerations against acting, by citing the (putative) fact that those agents are impervious to the reason-giving force of these considerations. There is, of course, much more that needs to be said before either of these phenomena is fully explained. But that fact doesn’t discredit evil as an explanatory concept, since it will also be true of the concepts appealed to by any other elements of the full explanation. The account of evil that I’ve sketched out here is a fairly elaborate one, referring both to the reasons for and against action in the circumstances, and also to the psychological (specifically, cognitive) state of the evildoer. But such elaboration is not necessary for the attribution of evil to an action to play an explanatory role. Consider a much more straightforward account of evil such as McGinn’s, according to which an evil action is one where the agent derives pleasure, noninstrumentally, from the suffering of others. This account of evil can also play an explanatory role. We standardly recognize that pleasure is one of the great motivating forces in human lives; so if, on McGinn’s account of what evil is, we characterize an action as evil, we are helping to answer the question of why the agent committed this particular action that caused such suffering to others – it’s because he derived great pleasure from doing so. And we thereby also help to answer the question of why this particular agent committed the evil act, rather than any of his peers – it’s because he, unlike (let us hope) most of the rest of us, derives pleasure from the suffering of others. Another monistic account of the nature of evil might claim that the evil act is one that intentionally produces very terrible outcomes (such as great suffering, or great harms), or is closely connected with the production of very bad outcomes. Claudia Card and Luke Russell both have (differing) sophisticated versions of this kind of account. But even a simple version can play an explanatory role, though perhaps a fairly minimalist one: if this is what evil amounts to, that helps to some extent to explain the special horror that these actions produce in us, since there is always at least pro tanto reason, and usually all-things-considered reason, to avoid producing very terrible outcomes. The deliberate rejection of reason is always troubling; when it’s done in the pursuit of great harm to others it is horrifying. (If this is correct, then theories of evil that hold that there is no qualitative distinction between evil actions and very wrongful ones, but only a quantitative difference, are able to play an explanatory role. The quantitative difference can to some extent account for the reaction of horror at evil actions rather than at merely wrongful ones – quantitative differences are, after all, genuine differences.) Finally, let us consider a pluralist theory of evil, such as that presented by Stephen de Wijze.33 His account is a disjunctive one, according to which an action is evil if it fulfills any one of three different conditions: either it involves the deliberate violation of persons with the intention of dehumanizing them; or it gratuitously inflicts the “Great Harms” (for example physical suffering, starvation, imprisonment, destruction of one’s family) on sentient beings that have moral standing; or it seeks to annihilate the “moral landscape,” for example by warping or inverting what counts as right and wrong. Can this disjunctive theory play an explanatory role in our understanding of the actions in question? Consider the case of genocide, where we wonder how and why the perpetrators can desire to, or even bring themselves to, kill huge numbers of helpless men, women, and children who have until recently been their fellow citizens or even their neighbors. (The readiness to do this was a most notable feature of the Holocaust and of the Rwandan genocide.) By categorizing genocide as evil we will, on de


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Wijze’s account, be claiming that it involves dehumanizing of the victims, and/or inflicting one or more of the “Great Harms” on them, and/or warping or inverting our normal moral standards. (In many cases genocide will involve all three of these conditions, though meeting all of them is not necessary for an act to be evil on de Wijze’s account.) Dehumanizing the victims undermines the prohibitions that are normally in place against harming the innocent, as of course does the inversion of our usual moral standards. So judging genocide to be evil helps to explain how otherwise normal people, often in large numbers, can bring themselves to commit such horrors. It only helps to explain this – much more is needed for anything like a full explanation of genocide, including contributions from sociology, psychology, history, and quite possibly ethology and biology. But that is what we should expect in attempting to fully account for so complex and terrible a phenomenon as genocide. It is, of course, possible that no fully adequate explanation is available. In particular the element of gratuitous excess, especially with regard to torture, which is such a notable feature of genocide and other very large-scale killings, may resist our best attempts at explanation. But that doesn’t mean that partial explanations aren’t available, or that they aren’t of use to us. We’ve looked at two fairly simple theories of evil, and two rather more complex ones, and in all cases the account of evil can do some explanatory work. The aim of this chapter is not primarily to justify the various theories of evil under consideration; it is only to argue that the concept of evil has some explanatory power even under different accounts of what evil is. Of course, differing accounts of evil may be better or worse at helping to explain the actions in question, and if a particular account is better than others at this task then that would be a strike in its favor.

Conclusion Although we can conclude that in the context of a secular theory of evil the concept of evil can do some explanatory work, that work is often quite limited. But this doesn’t mark out the concept of evil from other of our moral concepts, whose explanatory power is also limited. Limits on explanatory power aren’t sufficient to cast doubt on the legitimacy of a concept. Whether any of the particular theories of evil I have sketched out can be defended is of course another matter. But, if they can’t, then maybe there is an alternative that will do better. For we need a satisfactory account of evil if we’re to capture the full range and depth of our capacities for terrible wrongdoing.34

Notes 1 Of course there is no reason to suppose that appeal to the idea of evil will be able to provide full answers to all these questions. But that is not a special feature of the concept of evil: the provision of a full explanation of any action is likely to be a complicated matter drawing on a wide variety of considerations. 2 See Cole 2006 and see also his more recent treatment of the subject in Chapter 13 of this volume. 3 Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, Random House, 2007. 4 Clendinnen 1999. I focus here on Clendinnen’s work because she is so helpfully explicit about her decision to refrain from appeals to evil, but I do not intend any criticism of the book on historical grounds, having found much of it extremely interesting and plausible. 5 See Arendt 1963. 6 See Clendinnen 1999: 81 and 104. 7 Clendinnen 1999: 107. 8 Clendinnen 1999: 88. 9 See Clendinnen 1999: 131. 10 Clendinnen 1999: 86.


Does the term “evil” have any explanatory power? 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

24 25

26 27

28 29 30

31 32 33 34

Clendinnen 1999: 87. See Clendinnen 1999: 131–2. Clendinnen 1999: 107. See Sturgeon 1986 and 1988. Clendinnen 1999: 45. Clendinnen 1999: 110. Clendinnen 1999: 106. Browning 1992. Goldhagen 1996. But see Cole’s chapter (Chapter 13) in this volume for an attack on this view. For a very helpful discussion of different types of theories of evil, see Formosa 2008. In much of this section I will be drawing on my paper, Garrard 1998. Objections might be raised here to the search for necessary and sufficient conditions for a phenomenon such as evil, on the grounds that such a search implies an unwarranted essentialism, or alternatively that for other phenomena such searches have not had a successful track record. I cannot address this methodological issue adequately here, but would like to note that philosophical practice, in the face of a proposed account of a phenomenon, usually includes consideration of whether there are uncontentious cases of the phenomenon that do not fit the account, and on the other hand whether there are cases that do fit the account but are not examples of the phenomenon in question. It is hard to see how this differs from considering whether the account provides necessary and sufficient conditions for the phenomenon in question. For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see de Wijze 2018, Morton 2004 and Garrard 2002. For the sake of simplicity of presentation, I’m speaking here as if it is definitely types of action which are prohibited or obligatory. I very much doubt that this is the case, but that argument belongs in a different paper. However it’s worth noting that with some of the great evils, such as genocide, there are no obvious exceptions to their normative status as evil. See McGinn 1997: 62. McGinn contrasts this kind of “pure” evil with instrumental evil, where the suffering of others is a means toward some other goal. He regards such instrumental cases as immoral selfishness or egoism rather than pure evil, so it seems clear that the phenomenon being analyzed is the distinctive kind of evil that is the focus of this chapter. See McDowell 1978. See Garfinkel 1981, especially Chapter 1. It is also worth noting that there are some contexts in which an appeal to dormitivity is in fact highly explanatory, as when everyone in the room has taken one of the pills but only John has fallen asleep. Why did he fall asleep? It’s because the pills that everyone else took were vitamin C, but the pill that John took was opium, which has dormitive powers. “To construct – or employ, or discover – a theoretical entity to account for just one isolated difference is to restate the difference rather than to explain it.” See Mellor 1965: 212. Clendinnen 1999: 106. See de Wijze 2002. This is a revised and extended version of a paper that appeared under the title of “Evil as an Explanatory Concept” in The Monist in April 2002. I am grateful to Todd Calder, Chris Daly, Andre Gallois, Graham Macdonald, Geoffrey Scarre, Leo Zaibert, David Garrard, Stephen de Wijze, and in particular David McNaughton, for very helpful discussion of earlier versions of this chapter.

References Arendt, H. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York: Viking Press. Browning, C. 1992. Ordinary Men. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. Clendinnen, I. 1999. Reading the Holocaust. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. Cole, P. 2006. The Myth of Evil. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press. de Wijze, S. 2018. “Small-Scale Evil.” Journal of Value Inquiry, 52(1): 25–35. de Wijze, S. 2002. “Defining Evil: Insights from the Problem of ‘Dirty Hands.’” The Monist 85: 210–38. Formosa, P. 2008. “A Conception of Evil.” The Journal of Value Enquiry, 42(2): 217–39. Garfinkel, F. 1981. Forms of Explanation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


Eve Garrard Garrard, E. 2002. “Evil as an Explanatory Concept.” The Monist 85(2) : 320–36 Garrard, E. 1998. “The Nature of Evil.” Philosophical Explorations 1(1): 43–60. Goldhagen, D. 1996. Hitler’s Willing Executioners. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. McDowell, J. 1978, “Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume, 52: 32–59. McGinn, C. 1997. Ethics, Evil and Fiction. Oxford, Clarendon Press. Mellor, D.H. 1965. “Connectivity, Chance, and Ignorance.” British Journal of the Philosophy of Science, XVI(63): 209–225. Morton, A. 2004. On Evil. New York: Routledge. Sturgeon, N. 1988. “Moral Explanations” in G. Sayre-McCord (ed.) Essays on Moral Realism. Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press. Sturgeon, N. 1986. ”Harman on Moral Explanations of Natural Facts” in N. Gillespie (ed.) Spindel Conference 1986: Moral Realism, The Southern Journal of Philosophy, Supplement, XXIV: 115–41.


15 DEFINING THE CONCEPT OF EVIL Insights from our pre-cognitive responses Stephen de Wijze Are our pre-cognitive reactions to evildoing and evil persons, those very widely experienced emotional and intuitive responses, useful for understanding the concept of evil? Do such experiences provide an insight into why a notion of evil is needed as part of our moral vocabulary and, second, why it is qualitatively different from mere moral wrongdoing? To ask these questions another way, does the phenomenology of our moral experiences when facing evildoing and/or evil persons and institutions provide valuable data for resolving two difficult problems facing contemporary secular accounts of evil? I argue that our pre-cognitive reactions, such as the experience of moral horror, are indeed important data for understanding a concept of evil, which in turn gives this concept explanatory power and insight into why it is qualitatively different from the concept of ordinary wrongdoing. The chapter has the following structure. I begin by setting out the distinction between a general concept of evil and the many varied and substantial conceptions that arise from it. While this distinction applies to both religious and secular accounts my focus will be on concerns faced by recent secular conceptions of evil. I then briefly outline the three main approaches within contemporary secular scholarship about evil: historical, scientific, and philosophical. They tend to downplay or entirely dismiss the role of emotions and intuition in the analysis of evil. I then argue that a complete understanding of our moral reality1 necessitates a concept of evil that is significantly informed by our pre-cognitive responses. I contend that our pre-cognitive visceral and intuitive reactions to certain actions and persons motivate our understanding of a general and universal concept of evil, one that is not sufficiently recognized and taken into account by the many and varied conceptions of evil. This phenomenology of evil indicates that we intuitively use a separate normative category within moral theory to describe and react to certain terrible events where the standard concept of moral wrongdoing proves insufficient. I then set out and clarify our pre-cognitive responses to evil. These responses of horror, a sense of defilement, and disgust provide valuable data for defining the essence of the concept of evil. Following this, I briefly offer a plausible explanation for why human beings respond in these pre-cognitive ways and challenge the rejoinder that such phenomenological data are of no use for developing conceptions of evil. Finally, I argue that if our pre-cognitive responses do indeed provide insights into a plausible concept of evil, then this resolves the two concerns raised against secular conceptions of evil: the question of explanatory power and the


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“qualitative difference” thesis. A properly defined concept of evil indicates that some of our experiences are not merely of cases of great moral wrongdoing (although it includes this too), but of cases that are qualitatively different due to the subversion and distortion of the very normative boundaries needed to live decent lives.

Distinguishing between a concept and conception of evil In any systematic and analytical discussion of evil, it is crucially important to make a clear distinction between the general concept and its many different conceptions. The former captures what is referred to in the general or universal claim that evil exists while the different conceptions offer substantive reasons and arguments for a particular account of evil and of evil actions, persons, or institutions. Put another way, the concept of evil remains unchanging in picking out an important part of our moral reality even in the face of different and conflicting conceptions of this term. The concept of evil, then, subtends and frames the discussions from which the competing conceptions, both religious and secular, arise.2 What then does the concept of evil entail and how does it differ from the many and varied conceptions? The term “evil” seeks to describe a set of dreadful actions, persons, social institutions, and ideologies, when the standard moral terms of “bad” or “wrong” are insufficient to the task. The concept of moral evil recognises a set of actions, vices, and institutional practices that go beyond ordinary moral censure and disapproval.3 What distinguishes evil from moral wrongdoing is that if left unchecked it could destroy or seriously undermine accepted and established moral/social/political boundaries. The term evil recognises that there are practices and persons who, if not confronted and stopped, make viable social and political coexistence impossible. Evil does not constitute a merely greater quantity of wrongdoing but involves subversion and distortion of the very normative boundaries themselves, boundaries that are fundamental to the possibility of decent and tolerable lives. This concern with subversion of boundaries triggers and motivates the plethora of religious and secular conceptions, each with their own specific focus on the precise characteristics of the nature of evil. These differing religious and secular conceptions arise from the particular historical and philosophical assumptions about what human beings require to lead worthwhile and meaningful lives. A conception of evil, then, refers to those specific instantiations or sets of conditions that give content to the general concept. In secular accounts, this focus is on malevolent motives and intentions, and/or the deleterious consequences of actions. In many religious accounts, it is the rejection of, or rebellion against, God that identifies the nature of the excess and subversion that undermines or perverts the socially accepted moral boundaries and Godgiven purpose of life.

The case for secular accounts of evil The recent wave of scholarship on evil4 focuses on secular explanations and eschews theological or religious accounts, which evoke the existence of supernatural entities.5 The concern of secular theorists is that to underpin any analysis of evil with a theological doctrine and/or arcane set of metaphysical claims fatally undermines its credibility. Besides relying on dubious supernatural beings, some religious accounts also face other difficult problems. For example, the main monotheistic traditions stipulate that there is only one God and that this deity is omnibenevolent. Given this, evil occurs because a particular dark supernatural force (e.g., Satan) cajoles, persuades, or possesses people to act evilly. Where there is no evil force, human beings can choose


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to be evil when they fail to obey God’s commands or deny his very existence. Yet the question that needs to be answered is why such a good all powerful God would allow evil in the world.6 Given the concern that religious accounts of evil inevitably import more problems than they solve, secular theorists seek a conception of evil that avoids any problematic metaphysical or theological claims.7 The analysis explores motives, intentions, character, consequences of actions, and the role of specific vices, such as cruelty and malice, in arriving at a considered view of what constitutes evil. From a secular perspective, the term “evil” picks out the very worst kind of acts, persons, and institutions from a normative perspective. The principal claim is that there is a strong need for this distinctive term, which serves as a condemnatory descriptor to complement our moral vocabulary and properly describe a specific and terrible facet of our moral reality. This revival comes after some believe that contemporary liberal societies have “lost the sense of evil.”8 With the decrease in religious influence, contemporary societies defer to explanations of human behaviour, even its worst manifestations, in terms of a combination of biological, psychological, political, and social influences. People act from motives and intentions best explained by genetic and/or environmental factors. With a proper analysis of the aberrant behaviour, we can properly understand such actions and take the appropriate steps to prevent them occurring in the future. This view argues that there is no conceptual space for a term such as “evil” to describe these actions or a person’s settled dispositions (character). A notion of “evil” is at best an outdated and unhelpful term that brings with it unacceptable baggage from the past. To use this term inevitably evokes a discredited and dangerous religious metaphysics and demonizes and excludes certain individuals or groups (very often) for a particular and illegitimate political purpose. Furthermore, this demonization serves to “justify” actions against a particular group or individuals; actions that would ordinarily be prohibited as morally unacceptable.9 Consequently, the term “evil” has no place in contemporary moral theory and ought to be nothing more than a legacy of a religious and superstitious past. Yet there is a considerable gulf “between the visibility of evil and the intellectual resources available for coping with it.” What is more, the scientific (social and biological) explanations on offer do not capture the qualitative difference of these appalling events. As Delbanco points out: So the work of the devil is everywhere, but no one knows where to find him. We live in the most brutal century in human history, but instead of stepping forward to take credit, he has rendered himself invisible. Although the names he was once designated (in the Christian lexicon he was assigned the name Satan; Marxism substituted phrases like “exploitative classes”, psychoanalysis preferred terms like “repression” and “neurosis”) have been discredited to one degree or another, nothing has come to take their place. . . . .Yet something that feels like this force still invades our experience, and we still discover in ourselves the capacity to inflict it on others. Since this is true, we have an inescapable problem: we feel something that our culture no longer gives us the vocabulary to express.10 By rejecting the term “evil” as a part of our normative vocabulary we lose the “conceptual means for thinking about the sorts of experiences that used to go under the name of evil” and “we feel something that our culture no longer gives us the vocabulary to express.”11 If this is true, there is an urgent need to define a concept of evil that is secular and provides the conceptual tools that Delbanco argues has been lost to our contemporary moral vocabulary. The recent philosophical offerings of substantive conceptions of evil seek to do just this.


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Different approaches to developing secular conceptions of evil There have been roughly three different, often interconnected approaches to developing a secular conception of evil. First, there is a search for common views on evil by examining what acts and which persons have traditionally been labelled as such. Susan Neiman uses this historical approach and argues that evil defies identification as a constant unchanging essence through its various appearances down the ages.12 Consequently, the task of searching for this elusive core is bound to fail as there are radically different types of evils; such as the rape of a child, the gloating humiliation of those who are weak and vulnerable, and the Nazi death camps. What is more, even the often made distinction between natural and moral evils turns out to be merely a historical one, differing considerably down the ages. Consequently, any attempt to reduce evil actions or persons to a singular formula will be either one-sided or trivial. It would be better to look for what Wittgenstein calls “family resemblances” where evils “cannot be compared, but they should be distinguished.”13 Given that the different conceptions of evil defy a clear and universally agreed-upon set of intrinsic properties, we ought to shift perspective and focus primarily on what evil does to us. If, as Neiman suggests, evil shatters our trust in the world, it is this effect rather than the purported causes that we ought to explore. While this approach does capture some of our intuitions about evil, it does suffer from important deficiencies. First, its focus might lead to our overlooking significant issues such as the distinction between evil acts, persons, and institutions and how they relate to each other. Second, the historical approach may not be able to give us the clarity we seek about contemporary uses of the term evil that we routinely encounter from the writings of politicians, journalists, and others. And, even if Neiman is right that such clarity might ultimately elude us, it is too soon to make this a conclusive judgment. As we shall see, much still can be done to clarify a secular conception of evil enabling clearer insights into its necessary and sufficient conditions. This said, I do not want to dismiss the historical approach and the insights it offers. Rather, my point is that there are other approaches that do reveal valuable and interesting insights. The second method of developing a secular conception of evil is to turn to the findings of the contemporary natural and social sciences. Baron-Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy14 offers an interesting example of this approach. He explores the social and biological determinants that affect the brain and argues that when individuals lack or lose the ability to empathise they sometimes engage in behaviors, and reveal a character, that laypersons refer to as evil. For BaronCohen, the descriptor “evil” lacks content as it offers no scientific explanation for the worst kind of actions, such as torture or genocide. His hypothesis is that laypersons label acts as “evil” when they are extremely harmful, immoral, and motivated by an absence of empathy for the victims. Consequently, we need to replace the term “evil” with “empathy erosion”. This enables the focus to turn to exploring “corrosive emotions” such as hate or resentment (to mention just two), which enable an agent to perceive their victims to be nothing more than objects to be used for their own gratification.15 While this may be a transient state, it might also develop into one that is stable and longstanding and in which it is very difficult or impossible for agents to recover their empathetic abilities. These stable traits are what laypersons typically identify as the settled character of evil individuals. In short, Baron-Cohen seeks to redescribe the term “evil” by using explanatory, transparent, and secular social and natural scientific language.16 However, this approach on closer inspection faces difficult problems. A scientifically based explanatory concept, such as “empathy erosion,” does not adequately replace a well-understood conception of evil in our moral discourse. If Baron-Cohen is arguing that we ought to generally dispense with moral terms to describe and evaluate behavior, then his claim that the term “evil” can be better replaced with “lack of empathy” loses what is unique to moral discourse 206

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and our concern with it. The term “cruel,” for example, is an evaluative concept evoking a strong normative judgment that one ought not to act from this motive. To replace “evil” with an amoral description of “empathy deficit” is to lose the conceptual apparatus required to evaluate and properly describe what Kramer rightfully refers to as the “shuddering sense of horror,” which deserves particular and special normative responses reserved for the “grotesque perversity of evil.”17 Furthermore, we know that it is possible to lack empathy and not act evilly or be an evil person. It is also possible to act evilly while feeling a great deal of empathy for those who will suffer from such deeds. This puts Baron-Cohen’s attempt to replace the normative conception of evil on the horns of a dilemma. Either he must covertly rely on and import into his understanding of “empathy deficit” normative concepts such as cruelty, which prefigure a moral understanding of evil, or he can opt for a normatively neutral term such as “empathy deficit” and fail to properly capture the full range of our moral reality. Neither option is what Baron-Cohen would want, yet his spurning of normative concepts in the name of scientific objectivity leaves him in such a predicament. However, despite these concerns, the scientific approach is important as it makes us aware that any successful conception of evil must be appropriately informed by, and take into consideration, the best contemporary secular and scientific explanations we have for social and individual behaviors. A theory of evil that flies in the face of universally accepted biological facts, for example, would be one we should be wary of adopting. A third method, the most commonly followed by the recent flurry of secular conceptions of evil, is to engage in “conceptual analyses” of our common intuitions, language, and everyday experiences.18 Here the theorist begins with “folk”19 examples of evil acts or evil persons and examines their plausibility through a careful and systematic analysis using a process of “reflective equilibrium.”20 Commonly held intuitions about evil are tested against actual and hypothetical cases with the aim of developing general principles. This approach then outlines the necessary and sufficient conditions for a conception of evil enabling a proper identification of evil acts and persons. A conceptual analysis discards some intuitions as unsustainable or mistaken, while using others to bolster the arguments for a particular set of necessary and sufficient conditions. It is important to note here that the above three approaches – historical, scientific and philosophical – are not mutually exclusive or contradictory. They can and do support each other and capture a great many core intuitions that underlie the search for a rigorous conception of evil. However, what is missing is that none of the three secular approaches pays sufficient attention to the concept of evil itself and the fundamental (near) universal pre-cognitive responses experienced when faced by this phenomenon. This phenomenological experience is all too often dismissed as either having no useful analytic role or as being detrimental for seeking clarity about evil. However, this view of the phenomenology of evil is problematic and a careful analysis of our pre-cognitive responses to evil provides valuable data for why there is a need for a concept of evil. Even if there is much disagreement over which of the many conceptions is the correct one, the common concept of evil provides clear reasons why we need such a term in our moral vocabulary and why evil is qualitatively different from cases of moral wrongdoing.

The phenomenology of evil The focus on conceptual analysis over the last several decades has produced a rich and extensive scholarship on the topic of secular evil.21 However, while using commonplace intuitions about evil as the raw data for beginning a conceptual analysis, their source and importance have been downplayed. Intuitions are righty treated with great suspicion and often seen as based on 207

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prejudice, ignorance, error, or primitive superstitions. One of the fundamental goals of developing a rigorous conception of evil using conceptual analysis combined with the best contemporary explanations, both biological and environmental, for human actions is to overcome the errors and confusions that infused previous religious accounts. It would be counterproductive, to say the least, to replace an unreliable religious metaphysics with an unreliable set of shallow and impulsive intuitions. Given the limits on space, I will not explore in detail the arguments for why our phenomenological experiences play a vital role in our grasp of some concepts (moral and nonmoral) and not in others. There are clearly some concepts on which our phenomenological responses have no purchase, such as logical or mathematical concepts. One need not have any specific kind of response to the concept of {pi} or {sqroot} of a number to fully grasp their meaning and importance. However, to fully understand concepts of the secondary qualities, such as how something looks or the particular taste of a food, requires a felt experience of the object. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to explain the beauty of a song to someone who is deaf, or the taste of sugar to someone who has no ability to discriminate between sweet or sour. One needs to use similes and they never accurately reveal what sound or taste feels like. It seems that this is also true of evaluative concepts, where to correctly understand them we need to take note of their distinctive phenomenology. Understanding what it is to be terrified, or frightened, or ecstatic, or traumatized, requires that we have, at some point, had the appropriate experiences. If no one ever felt frightened, then the concept of fear could not have become part of our language for describing the world and our reactions to it. Consequently, as Garrard and McNaughton point out: there is a reciprocal relationship of elucidation in play between the phenomenology of our experiences of something that has a particular property and our grasp of the features of what we experience in virtue of which it has that property. By getting clearer about the precise nature of our reaction(s) to what we take to be F, we can get clearer about what it is that makes things F, and by getting clearer about what it is that makes things F, we may get a better grip on why these acts warrant this reaction.22 Exploring our complex moral reality, of which the notion of evil is a part, requires that we begin with our intuitions about this moral concept. Our intuitions are formed, in large part, by our strongly negative reactions and responses to the actions and/or character traits of certain persons. An example concerning moral reactions generally might be helpful here. If we do not recognize that indignation is an appropriate reaction to injustice, or that a feeling of shame is an appropriate response to our own wrongdoing, then we have not grasped the concepts of injustice and wrongdoing. The moral reaction is in part this kind of feeling, and consequently understanding the feeling is an essential part of the grasp of the concept of the moral event.23 In the same way it is not clear how any discussion about evil could begin without reference to the very negative experiences that we have experienced or heard about. This is not to assert that our responses or reactions are always accurate (we can be mistaken and react incorrectly). Nor is this to claim that our reactions to certain events never differ throughout history and between different cultures. They clearly do, and considerably so. In earlier societies, for example, racism, slavery, torture, misogyny, all actions that horrify and disgust us today, were not then commonly considered immoral, let alone evil. Rather, the claim here is that any grasp of what the concept of evil entails will require some consideration of our collective phenomenological reactions to it even if there is a different content to what is taken to be evil in a particular place and time. 208

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This difference will depend on the particular religious, political, social, economic, and metaphysical views that hold sway at that particular time and place.24 However, what will be common is that some actions and some persons will be perceived as evil and here we find the widespread reactions to this phenomenon that are of interest in understanding what this moral concept entails. Put another way, the concept of evil charts a distinct phenomenological response which then enables us to theorize about what specific features of the act or person make them appropriately labelled as evil. This judgment will be informed by a host of other assumptions and insights we possess at the time and this accounts for the very wide range of competing conceptions of evil.

Pre-cognitive responses to evil My central claim in this essay is that the phenomenology of evil elicits near-universal reactions and highlights our instinctive and intuitive responses to evil that are informative in themselves. These are pre-cognitive, often visceral, reactions that expose deeply held sentiments and insights into the phenomenon experienced. The reactions I have in mind are revulsion/disgust, disbelief/incomprehension, and a strong sense of being morally polluted or defiled when in the presence of evil. These pre-cognitive feelings give rise to moral horror, which highlights a distinct part of our moral phenomenology. It offers valuable insights into what a concept of evil entails and helps us to distinguish it from the concept of wrongdoing. Moral horror, then, occurs when certain individuals, groups, institutions, or societies engage in wrongful actions that are especially abhorrent and shocking. Our reactions to ordinary moral wrongdoing standardly range over feelings of disapproval, dislike, disdain, and even contempt.25 But evildoing, in contrast, evokes that special sense of moral horror which goes well beyond the usual disapproving reactions to immorality. The response of moral horror recognizes a difference in moral quality and gravity that justifiably entails feelings of defilement, revulsion, and a type of incomprehension or shock concerning the very existence of such actions or persons. Our moral horror reveals a unique and distinct part of our moral reality for which a different normative concept is required. However, while the concept of evil is needed to identify this aspect of our moral reality, we still need a fully worked out conception of evil to recognize the particular properties and conditions for what makes a person or his actions properly referred to as evil.26 It needs to be noted here that a reaction of moral horror is not always accurate and such a response needs to be challenged and justified through a careful and arduous process of reasoning and logical analysis.27 It would be mistaken, for example, to think of all horrified responses as moral horror. One might react with horror when finding a snake in one’s bag, but this has nothing to do with moral evil. It is also possible that someone could incorrectly experience moral horror owing to strong prejudices or false information. For example, an anti-Semite’s pre-cognitive responses of disgust and defilement when in the presence of Jews are deeply problematic and inappropriate and once subject to analysis can be understood to be so. It is possible that when the values of equality and respect for all are seen as morally foundational then those persons with prejudices will change, and these new values, in time, might become intuitive and part of their settled moral convictions.

Defining the concept of evil If we accept that there is a near-universal and highly distinctive set of pre-cognitive responses to evil, can we ascertain what provokes such reactions? Are these negative reactions appropriate and warranted by the nature of what is experienced? What we seek is the clarification of a 209

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concept that will frame the search for the content of a substantial conception of evil. An analogy here is helpful. Fairness, as a general normative concept, refers to laudable situations or interactions between persons and institutions where everyone receives what is their due. This general claim frames and makes possible a further discussion concerning the specific details and principles that ensure fairness within a particular context. Here we will find significant disagreements about what persons are really due and which principles or rules are needed for bringing about this desired state of affairs. However, what remains clear is the general character of fairness and that the notion of fairness is a desirable state of affairs, even if we cannot find a consensus of what this actually entails in principle or practice. What then gives rise to the near universal concept of evil down the ages in most religious worldviews and even in our secular contemporary times? A plausible way of finding an answer is by examining different contexts in which this concept is used, and then try to build a plausible hypothesis of why the specific moral phenomenology is pertinent to the event experienced as evil.28 The experience of evil, it seems, occurs when human beings face a particularly dangerous and terrible set of circumstances that are a fundamental threat to their well-being and where this may preclude their continued social coexistence with others. All sentient creatures, and human beings are no exception, require that they are protected from certain actions or events which would make any chance of a tolerable life impossible. In short, all persons need to be protected from what Stuart Hampshire refers to as the “Great Evils.” These are: states of affairs which are to be avoided for reasons that are independent of any reflective thought and of any specific conception of evil. Physical suffering, starvation, imprisonment and the destruction of one’s home and family are felt as great evils by anyone in virtue of being a living creature with all the needs that are common to living creatures.29 Hampshire also rightly points out that “humanity is united in the recognition of the great evils which render life scarcely bearable.”30 The concept of evil recognizes a reality where certain actions or ideologies or events encourage the infliction of the Great Evils and this elicits the pre-cognitive response of moral horror involving feelings of fear, defilement, disgust, and incomprehension. The Great Evils arise, or are made likely to happen, when persons, institutions, or societies seek to obliterate moral constraints, seek total domination over others, and/or prevent the very possibility of tolerable coexistence. However, what is perceived as the cause of evil depends on historical, religious, and cultural interpretations of reality. Traditional Christians (and no doubt other religious traditions) see the source of evil in either dark malevolent forces or in a dangerous person who through his or her own volition holds a “perverse will contrary to the divine order, which among other things defines the end for which he is created.”31 In largely secular contemporary societies the focus on the source of evil turns to physical and mental suffering and the malevolent motives and intentions of persons who can inflict misery and pain on others.32 But what is common to both accounts is the recognition that there is a normative reality that is best understood as evil and it is not adequately captured by reference to simple wrongdoing. The ordinary violation of moral norms (lying, stealing, some forms of unjustified violence) is quite different from the fundamental violation of morality that inflicting the Great Evils involves. In undermining any specific way of life or conception of the good, this kind of violation seeks the destruction or perversion of the moral and social orders themselves. In this way, evil involves actions that are qualitatively worse than ordinary immoral actions. They involve 210

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the perversion or elimination of moral and social boundaries in order to advance malign interests or, perversely, for its own sake. The latter case is noted by Hume: A creature, absolutely malicious and spiteful, were there any such in nature, must be worse than indifferent to the images of vice and virtue. All his Sentiments must be inverted, and directly opposite to those, which prevail in the human species. Whatever contributes to the good of mankind, as it crosses the constant bent of his wishes and desires, must produce uneasiness and disapprobation; and on the contrary, whatever is the source of disorder and misery in society, must, for the same reason, be regarded with pleasure and complacency. . . . Absolute, unprovoked, disinterested malice has never perhaps, place in any human breast; or if it had, must there pervert all the sentiments of morals, as well as the feelings of humanity.33 The experience of evil is very different from that of mere moral wrongdoing (even those cases which are very severe) because we are horrified by the inversion of the agent’s sentiments which are contrary to what usually prevails in the human species. Here our emotional intelligence generates that sense of horror, disgust, and defilement.34 We justifiably respond in a strong and negatively emotional manner to actions that undermine our well-being, and to persons who hold malevolent intentions towards us and the people and institutions we hold dear. Recent research on moral judgment suggests that it is not moral reasoning but rather moral intuitions and emotions such as empathy and love (for positive morality) and shame, guilt, and remorse (for negative morality) that best motivate moral action. Moral action, it seems, covaries with moral emotions more than with moral reasoning.35 When experiencing what is perceived to be evil, the strong pre-cognitive reactions serve to warn of severe danger and motivate us to act in ways that will eliminate and protect us from such danger.36 Our pre-cognitive responses to evil also frame the Rules of Evil Salience (RES).37 Our intuitive and pre-cognitive responses provide an immediate “evil sensitivity” to these extreme dangers and provoke a robust reaction to those morally worst actions and persons. The RES are learnt as part of our socialization and moral education and provide a framework within which we can instantly identify evil actions and persons. This evil sensitivity recognizes the potential in such actions to destroy the very fabric of morality and the recognized boundaries of civilized coexistence. The strong feelings of horror, disgust and defilement play a key role in shaping our moral intuitions about evil and hence in how we respond to contain or eliminate this threat. There is a deep wisdom in our pre-cognitive emotions and intuitions about evil that alert us to the RES and which in turn coalesce into a general concept that identifies the qualitatively different features of evildoing from ordinary moral violations. The concept of evil, then, captures that aspect of our moral reality which can be summarized as a form of immoral excess that causes fundamental and consequently irreparable and permanent harms. It rips or undermines the moral fabric of society, elicits hatred and revenge, and prevents the possibility of decent worthwhile lives.38

Solving two problems for secular accounts of evil Our robust phenomenological reactions to evil encompass a unique assemblage of emotional responses. As argued above, when insights from these reactions are combined with a careful analytical reflection and equilibrated with our strong intuitions, they provide a plausible universal concept of evil, one that captures a uniquely terrible part of our moral reality. In so doing the concept of evil and the different conceptions that arise from it become an essential part of our moral vocabulary. 211

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If this is indeed the case, it opens up the possibility of resolving two pressing concerns within the recent secular debates on evil. The first concerns the charge made by evil skeptics that talk of evil is redundant as it is an empty concept with no explanatory power. Everything normatively important can be properly captured using the standard moral terms that avoid any mention of evil. The second concern focuses on the claim by some evil revivalists that evil is merely quantitatively different from ordinary wrongdoing. There is no elusive property that makes an action, person, institution, or ideology evil. It is my contention that both concerns are easily resolved if indeed our pre-cognitive responses provide an indispensable preliminary understanding of what a concept of evil identifies about our moral reality.

Evil as explanatory term Consider the claim that the concept of evil has no explanatory power. It is in part a claim that there is no aspect of our moral reality that cannot be accurately described using the usual moral descriptors of good/bad or moral/immoral. Adding the intensifier of “very bad,” for example, properly describes those actions that we consider horrifying. Yet this seems implausible since certain actions and persons evoke moral horror, which in turn warrants a special term to properly label them. There was, and still is today, a common phenomenology of evil with the precognitive response of moral horror that goes beyond mere moral disapproval or condemnation. Evil exists (for both religious and secular accounts) when there is grotesque perversity or the incomprehensible and often wanton destruction of lives and property. There is the obliteration or inversion of fundamental moral norms or boundaries that protect against the great natural and social evils of starvation, humiliation, torture, and death; those evils that would make any kind of decent and tolerable life and coexistence with others impossible. There are certain actions motivated by cruelty, viciousness, and heartlessness, and which (almost always) involve the egregious causing of extreme pain and suffering, which go beyond normal moral censure. The term “evil” has considerable explanatory power in that it describes this aspect of our normative reality and enables us to understand our moral geography more clearly and precisely. The concept of evil’s explanatory power also extends to providing the appropriate language with its framework and boundaries within which we can develop the means to identify this phenomenon through the application of substantive necessary and sufficient conditions. It enables us to clarify and, where necessary, correct folk accounts of evil, which can be misleading about this difficult and terrible part of our moral reality. The concept of evil provides a vocabulary for those terrible inescapable experiences and allows us to talk intelligently and accurately about them.

The qualitative difference thesis In his paper “Is Evil Action Qualitatively Distinct from Moral Wrongdoing” Russell argues that there is no special property which evil acts possess to mark them out from cases of mere wrongdoing.39 The difference between evil and wrongdoing lies in the quantity or amount of harm caused. This view flies in the face of most secular accounts which claim that a distinguishing mark of evil is its qualitative difference from mere wrongdoing. However, responding to Russell has proved difficult since it is not clear just how to characterize this qualitative difference when setting out the necessary and sufficient conditions for evil acts or persons. Calder responds to Russell’s claims by setting out and defending what he calls the “moderate version” of the qualitative difference thesis.40 This is the view that evil is qualitatively distinct from mere moral wrongdoing when the conception of evil and the conception of wrongdoing do not share all of their essential properties. This criterion, Calder argues, coheres better with 212

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our intuitions about concept distinctness. To make this clear, Calder uses the analogy of the difference between the concepts of “chair” and “table.” Both share similar essential properties – four legs, possess a flat surface – but the essential property of chairs is that they are primarily used for sitting. Even though it is possible to sit on a table, this is not its essential purpose and so is distinguishable from a chair. Tables and chairs share properties but to different degrees. And so it is with immoral and evil acts and persons. There is no need to search for that elusive evil property that is absent from ordinary moral wrongdoing. Evil and wrongdoing do not share identical properties and the qualitative difference lies in discerning each action’s or each person’s unique combination of properties – some of which our pre-cognitive responses will indicate are best understood as evil. Liberto and Harrington take a different tack in response to Russell.41 They argue for what they refer to as the “quality of emphasis” account. According to this view, two concepts are qualitatively distinct when one of them has a property that determines the degree to which that concept is instantiated but does not determine the degree to which the second concept is instantiated. Unlike Calder’s account, two concepts can be qualitatively distinct even if they share identical properties. Liberto and Harrington point to the difference between the concepts of altruism and heroism. Both kinds of actions are always performed for others and at some cost or risk to those so acting. Hence they share the same two essential properties. However, they are different concepts because heroism is determined by the cost or risk of the action for the agent, while altruism focuses on the degree to which the action was done for the sake of others. The difference between evil and wrongdoing, then, does not depend on an elusive unique property or even different essential properties, but on which property is the primary determinant for that concept. For example, evil actions, unlike wrongful ones, are identified by a particular mix of malicious intentions and the life changing harms inflicted on victims. Yet while both Calder and Liberto and Harrington offer interesting defenses of the qualitative difference thesis, they seem to have missed a simpler and more elegant solution. As our pre-cognitive responses to evil indicate, we intuitively understand its qualitative distinctiveness, in its excess, intentions, and goals. Evil poses a special kind of danger that is absent from immoral actions, in that it seeks to invert or annihilate moral and social constraints that stand as a barrier against the Great Evils, and so which constitute the conditions or very fabric of morality and tolerable life themselves. Herein resides the qualitative difference from wrongdoing. Very bad or immoral actions, even murder and rape, do not necessarily seek to undermine the moral order, whereas evil has the quality of depravity or degeneracy which is particularly dangerous for long-term social and moral stability.

Final comments The phenomenology of evil provides us with a plausible concept of evil that frames the many different (religious and secular) conceptions of evil that have been developed to date. The recent secular accounts of evil make a serious error by not examining and learning from our precognitive responses to evil since they provide the basis for resolving what seem to be intractable problems. This applies to two recent disputes in particular. Contrary to the claims that the term evil has no explanatory power, this concept reveals an important part of our moral reality. Our pre-cognitive reactions recognize those situations where evil is present and this enables a clear and useful concept that provides the framework within which different conceptions seek to set out the conditions for evil actions, persons, institutions, and ideologies. There are other possible benefits to exploring our moral phenomenology of evil. It may be possible to unify a secular conception of evil actions with one concerned with identifying evil 213

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persons if we have a clearer understanding of this aspect of our moral reality. Furthermore, attention to the moral emotions that are provoked by evil may provide a narrative and context that would enrich secular analytical accounts. This in turn would also aid in properly understanding differing historical, anthropological, sociological, and political accounts of evil. But, perhaps most important of all, a careful attention to the phenomenology of evil within a secular context will return to us the means to talk intelligently and meaningfully about evil, without succumbing to a religious metaphysics or the dismissive claims of scientific and ethical reductionism.42

Notes 1 By “moral reality” I mean the set of experiences that constitute our moral lives.These include our moral emotions, the sense of our own goodness and integrity (or badness, deceit, and corruption), the special normative demands of our social roles, and the pull of different moral imperatives – from personal duties to universal consequentialist and deontological imperatives. 2 John Rawls famously uses this “concept”/“conception” distinction when discussing the notion of justice. Rawls argues that the concept of justice refers to “a proper balance between competing claims,” whereas a “conception of justice as a set of related principles for identifying the relevant considerations that determine this balance” (Rawls 1973: 9). In short, there are a number of different competing conceptions of justice corresponding to the same concept. They all seek to offer a set of principles that assign political and social rights and duties that treat citizens in a manner they argue best captures the proper balance of competing claims, which is the essence of the concept of justice. 3 It should be noted here that historically the concept of evil has often been used to simply refer to immoral or bad actions and did not allude to a qualitative distinction. However, for the term to offer something more than a synonym for the terms “bad” or “immoral,” it becomes an intensifier (very, very bad) and/or refers to a disturbing negative qualitative difference. 4 See Calder 2015 and Garrard and de Wijze 2016 and for overviews of the extensive recent scholarship on a secular accounts of evil. 5 For an overview of the rich history of demons, see Guiley 2009. 6 This is the well-known and much-discussed “theodicy problem” and poses one of the more intractable problems faced by religious conceptions of evil given the belief in an benevolent all-powerful God. Clearly, a secular account of evil does not face this problem. For an excellent overview of the “theodicy problem,” see Tooley 2015. On the theodicy problem also see chapters in this volume on Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz, and Sade. Also see Chapter 27 for a comparative view of evil from nonmonotheistic religions in this volume. 7 This view is challenged by Clark 2019, who argues that no good grounds have been given by secular theorists for the rejection of religious connotations to the term “evil.” He argues that what secular accounts demonstrate is that there are two or more distinct variants of a more general concept of evil – one that is secular and one that is religious (31). I agree with Clark’s view here that the general concept of evil underlies both religious and secular conceptions of evil. However, my concern in this paper is with secular accounts and specifically with resolving two particular problems they face. 8 See Delbanco, 1995. 9 Philip Cole makes this point with his account of the events following the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. Cole claims that President George W Bush used this attack to identify an “axis of evil” and then launched two wars to overthrow the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq. This discourse of evil was then used to “justify” these wars and led to two fatal errors.The first is that describing the enemy as evil distorted the reality preventing a rational and proper analysis of the events that took place. Second, by demonizing the enemy this erroneously implied that they were monsters who were capable of destroying the USA and Western civilization. This sets the baseline for a response that was inappropriate and counterproductive. So, for Cole, the deleterious consequences of using the term “evil” inevitably led to costly, immoral, and foolhardy responses such as torture, illegal wars, and the loss of a great many lives. See Cole 2006: 213–15. 10 Delbanco 1996: 9. 11 Delbanco 1995: 9 (my emphasis). 12 Neiman 2002.


Defining the concept of evil 13 Neiman 2002: 9. 14 Baron-Cohen 2011. 15 Baron-Cohen explicitly states: “My argument is that when you treat someone as an object, your empathy has been turned off ” (Baron-Cohen 2011: 7). 16 This approach is used in examining other opaque terms. For example, some theorists working within the philosophy of mind seek to see explain consciousness in scientific terms. Eliminative materialists, for example, redescribe concepts such as “love,” “happiness,” and “hate” with descriptions of scientific physical processes in the brain. See Ramsey 2016. 17 Kramer 2011: 220 18 Russell 2014: 24–30 offers an extended and careful account of what a conceptual analysis of evil would involve. He refers to the identification of evil acts and persons as the extensional aspect of the analysis, and the insights concerning its practicality or functionality he calls the inferential aspect. The extensional aspect (the class of things to which the concept applies) is useful for exploring whether a secular account clashes with widely accepted folk beliefs and intuitions. The inferential aspect aids in establishing the content for a conception of evil that has a close fit with widely held intuitions about evil. 19 The term “folk” refers to the usage of terms by those who are not philosophically trained and/or have no particular expertise in the matter. The term “evil” is used by politicians, judges, journalists, and the public at large without any of them necessarily thinking about the necessary and sufficient conditions for the proper use of this term. 20 For a detailed account of the method of reflective equilibrium see Daniels 2018. 21 Using this method, I have argued for a disjunctive and pluralist account of evil actions. See de Wijze 2002. For a taste of the large range of competing conceptions of evil actions and evil persons see Steiner 2002, Garrard 1998, Russell 2014, Formosa 2008, Haybron 2002, and Barry 2013. 22 Garrard and McNaughton 2018: 20–21. 23 I am indebted to Jeremy Barris for these illustrative examples. 24 I am emphatically not making a case for moral relativism here. Societies and groups that hold racist views, for example, are acting immorally even if they do not think this the case. The concept of evil is universal and transhistorical even though the different conceptions vary considerably across history and between societies. Religious societies may perceive of evil as the violation of the sacred and as caused by the Devil. More secular societies seek see evil as a result of environmental deprivation or genetic factors. While present-day decent societies believe racism to be evil, earlier societies did not and this was due to beliefs in falsehoods combined with political and economic self-interest. 25 Garrard and McNaughton 2019: 22. 26 Following Hooker, when evaluating a moral theory (and this includes a theory of evil) we look toward four criteria. First, it must originate from plausible general beliefs about morality. Second, it must be internally consistent. Third, it must cohere with or endorse our convictions about what is moral or immoral. Fourth, it should enable us to offer principles that support our considered convictions and justify them from an impartial point of view. Finally, it must be able to resolve (at least in the vast majority of cases) issues concerning immoral acts or persons over which there is strong disagreement. See Hooker 2000: 4. 27 For a view that rejects my claims see Wilson and Wilson 2003. They argue that focusing on moral horror is a form of moral self-indulgence and offers little of value to our moral lives. We ought to strive to rid ourselves of such pre-cognitive reactions as they have no utilitarian value. My concern with this argument is that it presupposes a utilitarian account of morality holds sway and I reject this reductionist account of our moral lives. 28 It is of course possible that there is nothing in the world that properly warrants the pre-cognitive responses such as moral horror with its feelings of defilement, shock, and disgust. If this were the case then any theory of evil would be an error theory. However, those who make this claim would also need to offer plausible explanations for why people almost universally respond to actions they perceive as evil in a specific way even when it isn’t warranted. For more detail on the concept of evil as error theory see Garrard and McNaughton 2019: 24–5. 29 Hampshire 1989: 106. 30 Hampshire 1989: 107. 31 Pocock 1985: 48. 32 While this is true of most secular accounts of evil, some argue that there is the phenomenon of “smallscale evil” where evil actions occur yet there is no severe or significant harm caused to the victim. See Garrard, 2002; Morton 2004 and de Wijze, 2017.


Stephen de Wijze 33 Hume 1975: 226–7 (my emphasis). 34 Here I am following Salovey and Mayer 1990: 186, who argue that emotions provoke an organizing response as they focus our cognitive activities and subsequent actions. Emotional intelligence “involves the ability to monitor one’s own and other’s feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions” (189). 35 For a detailed discussion of this research see Haidt 2001: 823–30. 36 Of course, our reactions can be deeply problematic in themselves. In Europe between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries the Catholic Church published the Malleus Maleficarum, which provided a “compendium of possible evil and a directory of how, through torture, interrogation and trickery, evil was to be eliminated.” See Macfarlane 1985: 59. 37 Here I am using and extending a notion developed by Herman that explores the idea of the rules of moral salience (RMS). Herman argues that the RMS highlight the morally relevant features of actions and also mandate that they face the extra burden of normative justification. For example, the use of violence, deception, and abuse of others always requires more than prudential or instrumental justifications. Furthermore, the RMS ensure that there is a common understanding that some actions always require a normative judgment which, if in conflict, will always trump instrumental reasons to so act. In short, the RMS constitute the structure of moral sensitivity. See Herman 1993: Chapter 4. 38 If I am correct that evil is a part of our moral reality that is not adequately captured by our usual moral parameters of ordinary life, this raises a number of other issues that need attention. Two worth mentioning are the issues of punishment and forgiveness. Does evil require us to rethink the notions of punishment and forgiveness? What would be a proportionate punishment for evil persons? Can they be forgiven for their actions? Does evil leave an indelible moral stain on those who so act and also their victims? These issues are beyond the scope of this chapter. (See in this volume Chapters 20 and 21 on punishment and forgiveness, respectively.) 39 Russell 2007. 40 See Calder 2013 and his chapter (Chapter 16) in this volume. 41 Liberto, H. and Harrington, F. 2016. 42 I am indebted to Eve Garrard, Jeremy Barris, Daniel de Wijze,Thomas Nys, and Hillel Steiner for written comments and discussions on an earlier draft of this chapter.

References Baron-Cohen, S. 2011. Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty (London: Allen Lane). Barry, P.B. 2013. Evil and Moral Psychology. Routledge Studies in Ethics and Moral Theory (New York: Taylor and Francis). Calder, T. 2013. “Is Evil Just Very Wrong?” Philosophical Studies 163(1): 177–96. Calder, T. 2015. “The Concept of Evil.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) Clark, S. 2019. “A Religious Conception of Evil”. In Moral Evil in Practical Ethics, Shlomit Harrosh and Roger Crisp (eds.) (London and New York: Routledge). Clendinnen, I. 1999. Reading the Holocaust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Cole, P. 2006. The Myth of Evil: Demonizing the Enemy (Westport, CT: Praeger). Daniels, N. 2018. “Reflective Equilibrium.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) Delbanco, A. 1996. The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux). de Wijze, S. 2018. “Small-Scale Evil.” Journal of Value Inquiry 52(1): 25–35. de Wijze, S. 2019. “Political Evil: Warping the Moral Landscape.” In Moral Evil in Practical Ethics, Shlomit Harrosh and Roger Crisp (eds.) (London and New York: Routledge). de Wijze, S. 2002. “Defining Evil: Insights from the Problem of ‘Dirty Hands.’” The Monist 85: 210–38. Formosa, P. 2008. “A Conception of Evil.” The Journal of Value Inquiry 42: 217–239. Garrard, E. 2002. “Evil as an Explanatory Concept.” The Monist 85(2): 320–36. Garrard, E. and de Wijze, S. 2016. “Evil.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Philosophy, Duncan Pritchard (ed.) (New York: Oxford University Press). Garrard, E. and McNaughton, D. 2019. “How to Theorise About Evil”. In Moral Evil in Practical Ethics, Shlomit Harrosh and Roger Crisp (eds.) (New York and London: Routledge).


Defining the concept of evil Guiley, R.E. 2009. The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology (New York: Facts on File). Hampshire, S. 1989. Innocence and Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). Haidt, J. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Model of Moral Judgment.” Psychological Review 108(4): 814–34. Herman, B. 1993. The Practice of Moral Judgment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). Hooker, B. 2000. Ideal Code, Real World: A Rule –Consequentialist Theory of Morality (Oxford: Clarendon Press). Haybron, D. 2002. “Moral Monsters and Saints.” The Monist 85(2): 260–84. Hume, D. 1975. An Enquiry Concerning the Principle of Morals (3rd edition) P.H. Nidditich (ed.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press). Kramer, M.H. 2011. The Ethics of Capital Punishment: A Philosophical Investigation of Evil and Its Consequences (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Liberto, H. and Harrington, F. 2016. “Evil, Wrongdoing, and Concept Distinctness.” Philosophical Studies 173(6): 1591–602. McGinn, C. 1997. Ethics, Evil, and Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon Press). Morton, A. 2004. On Evil (New York: Routledge). Neiman, S. 2002. Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press). Parkin, D. (ed) 1985. The Anthropology of Evil (Oxford: Basil Blackwell). Pocock, D. “Unruly Evil.” In The Anthropology of Evil, David Parkin (ed.) (Oxford: Basil Blackwell). Ramsey, W. 2016. “Eliminative Materialism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Winter edition. Rawls, J. 1973. A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). Russell, L. 2014. Evil: A Philosophical Investigation (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Russell, L. 2007. “Is Evil Action Qualitatively Distinct from Ordinary Wrongdoing?” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 85(4): 659–67. Russell, L. 2006. “Evil-Revivalism Versus Evil-Skepticism.” The Journal of Value Inquiry 40: 89–105. Scarre, G. 2012. “Evil Collectives.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy XXXVI: 74–92. Salovey, P. and Mayer, J.D. 1990. “Emotional Intelligence.” Imagination, Cognition, and Personality 9(3): 185–211. Steiner, H. 2002. “Calibrating Evil.” The Monist 85(2): 183–93. Taylor, D. 1985. “Theological Thought about Evil.” In The Anthropology of Evil, David Parkin (ed.) (Oxford: Basil Blackwell). Tooley, M. 2015. “The Problem of Evil.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Fall edition. Tabensky, P. 2009. The Positive Function of Evil. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Wilson, J. and Wilson, N. 2003. “Moral Horror.” Journal of Beliefs & Values 24(3): 321–27. Zimbardo, P. 2007. The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil. London: Rider.



Introduction What is the relationship between evil and wrongdoing? Is evil just very wrong? Or is there a qualitative distinction between evil and wrongdoing? Many people (both theorists and laypeople) share the intuition that there is a qualitative distinction between evil and wrongdoing. We feel differently about evil actions – horror and repulsion rather than mere disapproval – and we think that this difference in feeling reflects qualitative differences in the objects of our feelings. However, it isn’t always clear what we mean when we say that evil is qualitatively, as opposed to quantitatively, distinct from ordinary wrongdoing. Nor is it clear that it matters whether the distinction between evil and wrongdoing is qualitative or quantitative. In this chapter I consider four interpretations of the qualitative difference thesis, i.e., the thesis that the difference between evil and ordinary wrongdoing is qualitative rather than quantitative.1 I argue that one of these interpretations, what I call the moderate version, is preferable to the others, and that, on this interpretation, evil is qualitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing. I begin with reasons to care about the qualitative difference thesis.

Why should we care? Most theorists writing about evil believe we should care whether the difference between evil and wrongdoing is qualitative or quantitative.2 However, few argue explicitly for this claim. One reason to care is that if evil is only quantitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing then we may be able to abandon the concept of evil and refer to the most morally despicable sorts of actions as “very wrong” rather than “evil,” without impoverishing our moral discourse.3 This prospect is particularly appealing since it isn’t always clear what people mean by “evil,” and misapplications of the term can lead to overly harsh judgments or punishment.4 Thus, if evil is just very wrong and not qualitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing, it seems we should renounce the concept of evil and use the term “very wrong” instead. A second reason to care about whether the difference between evil and ordinary wrongdoing is qualitative or quantitative is that, if the difference between evil and wrongdoing is qualitative, we should reject theories of evil that do not cohere with this fact.5 Several theorists have assumed that the difference between evil and wrongdoing is qualitative and have used this assumption to 218

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support their theories of evil and argue against rival views.6 However, as we will see in the section on interpretations of the qualitative difference thesis, these arguments depend on particular interpretations of the qualitative difference thesis, and these interpretations are controversial. A third reason to care about whether the difference between evil and ordinary wrongdoing is qualitative or quantitative is theoretical interest or the pursuit of truth. If some theorists believe the difference between evil and wrongdoing is qualitative and others disagree, there is some value in settling the dispute. Further, by settling the dispute we learn something about the nature of evil and its relationship to wrongdoing, and this knowledge may help us avoid conceptual confusion.

Preliminary remarks What do we mean, in general, when we say that one thing is qualitatively, as opposed to quantitatively, distinct from another thing? Some examples might help. It seems clear that the difference between a three-pound bag of apples and a six-pound bag of apples is quantitative rather than qualitative. It seems equally clear that the difference between a two-pound bag of apples and a two-pound bag of oranges is qualitative rather than quantitative. However, note that the quality of apples in a three-pound bag might differ significantly from the quality of apples in a six-pound bag. For example, the apples in the three-pound bag might have more blemishes and be tastier than the apples in the six-pound bag. Similarly, there might be quantitative differences between the two-pound bag of apples and the two-pound bag of oranges. For instance, the individual oranges might be denser than the individual apples, and so the two-pound bag of apples might contain more individual apples and have a greater volume than the two-pound bag of oranges. Further, there are qualitative similarities between apples and oranges: they are both round, rich in vitamin C, seeded, and useful for juggling. Thus, what at first appear to be clear cases of purely quantitative or qualitative differences are less clear upon reflection. There will often be qualitative and quantitative similarities and differences between two things. The question of whether two things are qualitatively distinct is not whether there are any, or even many, qualitative or quantitative similarities or differences between them. The question is whether one of the things is just a greater or lesser form of the other. If it is, then the difference between them is quantitative. If it isn’t, then the difference between them is qualitative. It is also important to note that when we ask whether the difference between evil and wrongdoing is qualitative or quantitative we are asking whether the difference between the concept of evil and the concept of wrongdoing is qualitative or quantitative, and not whether the difference between some particular evil action and some particular wrongful action is qualitative or quantitative. While it may seem obvious that our question is about evil and wrongdoing in general or in the abstract, and not about particular cases, it is easy to slip from thinking about the concepts of evil and wrongdoing to thinking about particular cases, and vice versa. For this reason it is worthwhile to consider the relationship between concepts and their instantiations. A concept tells us what is essential for being a particular sort of thing, thereby pointing to all particular, actual and possible, cases that fall under the concept. Each instantiation of a concept has the essential properties contained within that concept. However, particular instantiations also have inessential properties as well. For example, the sole property of the concept of triangle is the property of having three angles. However, each particular triangle has various inessential properties as well, such as sides of varying lengths and angles of varying degrees.7 The concept of evil action contains those properties that are essential for evil action, while the concept of wrongdoing contains those properties that are essential for wrongdoing. Theories 219

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of evil action attempt to say which properties are contained within the concept of evil action, while theories of wrongdoing attempt to say which properties are contained within the concept wrongdoing. Some of these theories will be discussed in the following sections. Each evil action has the essential properties contained within the concept of evil action and each wrongful action has the essential properties contained within the concept of wrongdoing. Besides the essential properties of evil action, particular evil actions have various inessential properties, just as particular wrongful actions have various inessential properties. Now consider wrongful action (W). (W) has the essential properties of wrongful action. Let us call them properties a–d. (W) also has inessential properties e–g which, if intensified, would make (W) evil. Compare (W) with evil action (E). (E) also has properties a–g, however, (E)’s properties e-g are intense enough for evil. We might call them properties e*–g* to highlight that they are intensified versions of e–g. Now, if we ask whether the difference between (E) and (W) is qualitative or quantitative the answer seems to be quantitative. However, it does not follow from this that the difference between the concept of evil action and the concept of wrongdoing is quantitative rather that qualitative. For the difference between the concept of evil action and the concept of wrongdoing to be quantitative, rather than qualitative, the concept of wrongdoing would need to have properties that, if intensified, would make it indistinguishable from the concept of evil action. Just because (W), which falls under the concept of wrongdoing, has properties which if intensified would make it evil, it does not follow that the concept of wrongdoing itself has these properties. Now that we are clearer about what it means for one thing to be qualitatively distinct from another, and have considered more deeply the relationship between concepts and their instantiations, we are in a better position to discuss and evaluate different interpretations of what it would mean for evil to be qualitatively distinct from wrongdoing.

Four interpretations of the qualitative difference thesis Luke Russell has distinguished three interpretations of the qualitative difference thesis, i.e., the thesis that the difference between evil and wrongdoing is qualitative rather than quantitative: the cheap version, the strong version, and the weak version.8 Hallie Liberto and Fred Harrington have introduced a fourth: the quality of emphasis version.9

The cheap version On the cheap version, whatever we call “evil” has a quality – call it evilness – that nonevil actions lack by virtue of being nonevil. The cheap version simply assumes that there is a qualitative distinction between evil and wrongdoing without entertaining the possibility that “evil” and “wrong” might pick out different quantities of the same qualities. Thus, the cheap version simply begs the question against those who believe that the difference between evil and ordinary wrongdoing is merely quantitative, offering no substantive account of the conditions required for a qualitative difference between evil and ordinary wrongdoing.

The strong version On the strong version of the qualitative difference thesis evil is qualitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing only if an essential property of evil is not shared to any degree by any merely wrongful (nonevil) action.10 Some proponents of the strong version believe that the distinguishing property of evil is a supernatural property, such as being possessed by Satan or dark forces. 220

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Proponents of this view tend to believe that since evil is a supernatural concept it should be confined to theological or fictional contexts.11 Other proponents of the strong version hope to offer a secular theory of evil by arguing that some natural property is the distinguishing feature of evil. For example, Hillel Steiner argues that the distinguishing feature of evil is pleasure in wrongdoing.12 On Steiner’s theory, evil is qualitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing because no merely wrongful action is pleasurable for the doer, while all evil actions are both wrongful and pleasurable. The strong version of the qualitative difference thesis is appealing to theorists for at least two reasons. First, it offers a significant distinction between evil and wrongdoing.13 On the strong version, the difference between evil and wrongdoing is very clearly not just a matter of degree. Evil actions have some special distinctive quality that no merely wrongful action has. Second, the strong version rules out several extant theories of evil and thus can be used to argue in favor of particular theories of evil over competitor theories.14 That is, a proponent of the strong version can say that if a theory does not pick out a quality that all evil actions share and no merely wrongful action has, then it does not make a genuinely qualitative distinction between evil and wrongdoing and should be rejected for that reason. However, the strong version has a number of problems. First, it makes it difficult to develop a plausible secular theory of evil. For it is hard to conceive of a natural property that all evil actions share and no merely wrongful actions have to any degree. Consider Steiner’s attempt to define evil as pleasurable wrongdoing. While it may be true that taking pleasure in wrongdoing is an aggravating factor, it seems that we can think of cases that are evil but lack pleasure, and cases that are pleasurable and wrong, but not evil. For instance, malicious torture is evil even if the doer derives no pleasure. And taking pleasure in shoplifting is pleasurable and wrong but too trivial for evil.15 Eve Garrard argues that the distinguishing property of evil actions is that they are performed by agents who are completely unmoved by morally important reasons for acting, or not acting, and instead act, or do not act, for reasons that do not count as reasons at all given the moral importance of the reasons the agents disregard.16 For instance, on Garrard’s account it would be evil to kill someone to get the attention of a love interest while being completely unmoved by the fact that one’s victim will suffer a great harm. This would be evil on Garrard’s account because the preservation of another person’s life is of such moral importance that, when it conflicts with a relatively trivial consideration, such as the desire to get the attention of a love interest, this second consideration loses all of its reason giving force. To then be moved to act by this trivial consideration while being completely unmoved by the morally important imperative to preserve someone else’s life is evil on Garrard’s account. The main problem with Garrard’s account is that it sets the bar for evil action too high. For instance, it seems that it would be evil to kill someone to get the attention of a love interest and be only somewhat moved by the fact that our victim will suffer a great harm. However, on Garrard’s account, caring even a little bit about the morally important consideration at issue precludes us from evildoing. But that doesn’t sound correct.17 Thus, it seems that Garrard does not offer a plausible theory of evil and has not discovered a natural property that all evil actions share and no merely wrongful action has to any degree.18 I contend that the reason that Steiner, Garrard, and others have been unable to uncover a natural property that all evil actions share and all merely wrongful actions lack is that no such property exists. If correct, this result would be welcomed by those who think that evil is a supernatural or fictional concept, since if evil cannot be distinguished from wrongdoing via a natural property, then we have some reason to believe that only a supernatural quality (if it existed) would distinguish evil from ordinary wrongdoing. Other theorists take our inability to discover a natural 221

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property that all evil actions share and all ordinary wrongs lack to show that evil is not qualitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing.19 On this view, evil is just very wrong. However, another way to respond to our inability to discover a natural property that all evil actions share and all ordinary wrongs lack is to reject the strong version of the qualitative difference thesis. This approach is particularly appealing since the strong version has additional serious problems. The primary problem with the strong version of the qualitative difference thesis is that it is based on an implausible criterion for determining whether two concepts are qualitatively distinct. According to this criterion, one concept is qualitatively distinct from another provided the objects picked out by the first concept have a property that no member of the class of objects picked out by the second concept has to any degree. In a previous paper I offer the following counterexample: It seems that there is a genuinely qualitative distinction between tables and chairs. But what is the difference between these two concepts? Both tables and chairs can be made from different sorts of materials, have four legs, have hard flat surfaces, be backless, etc.20 I contend that the essential distinguishing property of a chair is that it is primarily used for sitting on, while the essential distinguishing property of a table is that it is primarily used to set things on. However, if I am correct, [a proponent of the strong thesis] would say that there isn’t a qualitative distinction between tables and chairs. Here’s why. Although a table is primarily used to set things on, it can also be used for sitting. And while a chair is primarily used for sitting, we can also set things on chairs. Thus, according to [the] criterion for distinguishing between concepts [assumed by the strong version], there is no qualitative distinction between tables and chairs because chairs do not possess some special quality, such as being used for sitting, that no table ever has to any degree, and tables do not possess some special quality, such as being used to set things on, that no chair ever has to any degree. But surely there is a genuinely qualitative distinction between tables and chairs.21 Thus, the strong version of the qualitative difference thesis is based on a criterion for determining whether two concepts are qualitatively distinct which we should reject. Theorists who have endorsed the strong version of the qualitative difference thesis may have been misled by the following sort of reasoning: 1 2


It seems that there is a qualitative distinction between evil and wrongdoing. If we say that some particular, actual or possible, wrongful action would have been evil had one of its properties (e.g., harm) been intensified, then the difference between this merely wrongful action and some particular, actual or possible, evil action would be quantitative rather than qualitative. Thus, for evil to be qualitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing, evil actions must have some property that no merely wrongful action has.

The problem with this reasoning is the move from (2) to (3). Step (2) makes a claim about the relationship between two particular, actual or possible, actions. Step (3) makes a claim about the relationship between the concepts of wrongdoing and evil. As I argue in the preliminary remarks, just because the difference between a particular wrongful action and a particular evil action is only quantitative, it does not follow that the difference between the concept of wrongdoing and the concept of evil is only quantitative. Consider again the concepts of tables and chairs. We could build two identical objects and call one a table and the other a chair. The difference 222

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between the two would be that the first is primarily used for setting things on and the second is primarily used for sitting. In this imagined case, the difference between the two objects is quantitative rather than qualitative: one is used more for setting things on, while the other is used more for sitting. But that doesn’t mean that the difference between the concept of a table and the concept of a chair is merely quantitative. A chair is not just a greater or lesser table, and vice versa. Instead of using the criterion upon which the strong version of the qualitative difference thesis is based, I believe we should use the following criterion to determine whether two concepts are qualitatively distinct: “one concept is qualitatively distinct from another provided that all of the essential properties of the first concept are not all of the essential properties of the second concept, but had to greater or lesser degrees.”22 According to this criterion, the concepts of tables and chairs are qualitatively distinct, for, while some tables are used for sitting and some chairs are used for setting things on, it is not essential to the concept of a table that it is used for sitting, and it is not essential to the concept of a chair that it is used for setting things on. Since the strong version of the qualitative difference thesis makes it difficult, if not impossible, to develop a plausible secular theory of evil that makes for a qualitative distinction between evil and ordinary wrongdoing, and is based on an implausible criterion for determining whether two concepts are qualitatively distinct, it should be rejected.

The moderate version Let us now consider what Russell calls the weak version of the qualitative difference thesis (what I prefer to call the moderate version).23 According to the moderate version, evil is qualitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing provided the concept of evil and the concept of wrongdoing do not share all of their essential properties. The moderate version avoids the problems of the cheap and strong versions while retaining some of their appealing aspects. First, unlike the cheap version, the moderate version does not simply beg the question against proponents of the view that evil is only quantitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing. It does not simply posit a property – evilness – that all things called “evil” have by virtue of being called “evil” and all nonevil things lack by virtue of being called “nonevil.” It makes a substantive claim about what things must be like for evil to be qualitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing. According to the moderate version, if, on our best theories of evil and wrongdoing, evil and wrongdoing share all of their essential properties to differing degrees, then evil is not qualitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing. Like the strong version, the moderate version gives theorists tools to reject theories of evil that do not make a qualitative distinction between evil and wrongdoing. Consider, for example, a theorist who holds a purely act-consequentialist theory of wrongdoing and a purely act-consequentialist theory of evil.24 On a purely act-consequentialist theory of wrongdoing, it is wrong to fail to maximize the overall good and the worse the consequences, or the greater the harm, the greater the wrong. On a purely act-consequentialist theory of evil it is evil to bring about very bad consequences or a lot of harm.25 It is easy to see that, on purely act-consequentialist theories of wrongdoing and evil, wrongdoing and evil share all of their essential properties: bad consequences or harm. It is just that evil actions have these properties to a greater degree. Thus, on the moderate version of the qualitative difference thesis, a theorist who holds a purely act-consequentialist theory of wrongdoing and a purely actconsequentialist theory of evil cannot account for the qualitative distinction between evil and ordinary wrongdoing, and so, her theory of evil may be rejected for that reason.26 However, unlike the strong version, the moderate version does not make it virtually impossible for theorists to devise plausible secular theories of evil that make a qualitative 223

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distinction between evil and ordinary wrongdoing. On the contrary, on the moderate version, most, if not all, theories of evil that have been offered in the literature make a qualitative distinction between evil and ordinary wrongdoing on this understanding of that distinction.27 For example, according to Claudia Card, evil actions are inexcusably wrongful actions that foreseeably produce intolerable harms.28 Card explicitly separates the wrongfulness and harm components of her theory by rejecting theories of wrongdoing that define wrongful actions as those that produce more harm than good, i.e., consequentialist theories of wrongdoing. For this reason, Card’s theory of evil makes a qualitative distinction between evil and wrongdoing. For on her account intolerable harm is an essential component of evil, while harm is not an essential component of wrongdoing on the nonconsequentialist theories of wrongdoing she endorses.29 For example, on the Kantian conception of wrongdoing, telling a lie is wrong even if it doesn’t lead to harm.30 Also, unlike the strong version, the moderate version is not based on an implausible criterion for determining whether two concepts are qualitatively distinct. On the contrary, the moderate version is based on the plausible criterion argued for above: one concept is qualitatively distinct from another provided all of the essential properties of the first concept are not all of the essential properties of the second concept, but had to greater or lesser degrees. This criterion coheres better with our intuitions about concept distinctness. For instance, on this criterion, and not on the criterion assumed by the strong version, there is a qualitative distinction between tables and chairs.

The quality of emphasis version In a recent paper, Hallie Liberto and Fred Harrington reject the moderate version of the qualitative difference thesis and the criterion for determining when two concepts are qualitatively distinct that I have argued for above.31 Instead, they argue for what they call the “quality of emphasis” account. According to the quality of emphasis account, two concepts are qualitatively distinct provided one of the concepts has a property that determines the degree to which that concept is instantiated that does not determine the degree to which the second concept is instantiated.32 Significantly, on this account, two concepts can be qualitatively distinct even if they share all of the same essential properties. For example, Liberto and Harrington suggest that altruistic and heroic actions share the following essential properties: 1 2

performed for the sake of others [and] performed at some cost or risk to the agent.33

What makes the concepts of altruism and heroism qualitatively distinct is that degrees of altruism are determined by (1), the degree to which an action is performed for the sake of others, while degrees of heroism are determined by (2), the degree to which an action is performed at some cost or risk to the agent. For example, rescuing a child from an uncontrollable blaze is more heroic than rescuing a child from a smoke-filled room, but not more altruistic. Similarly, for someone with a moderate aversion to needles, donating blood every month is more altruistic than donating blood once per year, but not more heroic.34 Liberto and Harrington believe that evil and wrongdoing may be qualitatively distinct in a similar fashion. For example, Liberto and Harrington argue that Card’s theory of evil has the resources to make for a qualitative distinction between evil and wrongdoing in this sense. As noted above, on Card’s theory, evils are distinguished from other wrongs by being inexcusable and resulting in intolerable harm. Liberto and Harrington suggest that Card could say that 224

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degrees of evil are determined by degrees of harm, while degrees of wrongdoing are not. If so, on Card’s theory of evil, evil and wrongdoing are qualitatively distinct according to the quality of emphasis version of the qualitative difference thesis. It cannot be denied that Liberto and Harrington have zeroed in on a problem for the moderate account: it is theoretically possible for two concepts to be qualitatively distinct by being quality of emphasis distinct while sharing all of the same essential properties. For example, Liberto and Harrington are correct that if altruism and heroism each had (1) and (2) as their only essential properties they could still be qualitatively distinct by being quality of emphasis distinct in the way they suggest. The moderate version provides sufficient, but not necessary, conditions for two concepts to be qualitatively distinct. However, the same criticism can be made against the quality of emphasis version of the qualitative difference thesis. For it seems that two concepts can be qualitatively distinct, and yet, not quality of emphasis distinct. This happens when two concepts do not share all of their essential properties, and thus are qualitatively distinct on the moderate version of the qualitative difference thesis, but neither concept has a property that determines the degree to which the concept is instantiated that the other concept does not have. For instance, one might argue that what makes an action evil, as opposed to merely wrong, is that it involves an organization doing, or making possible, wrongful harms.35 According to this hypothetical theory of evil, evil actions are very harmful wrongs performed, or made possible, by organizations.36 On this account of evil, and on plausible conceptions of wrongdoing, evil and wrongdoing do not share all of their essential properties. For on this account of evil, evil actions must be performed, or made possible, by organizations, while, on plausible conceptions of wrongdoing, individuals can perform wrongful (nonevil) actions as individuals, and not only as members of organizations. Now, imagine further that on this theory of evil the degree to which actions are performed, or made possible, by organizations does not affect the degree to which these actions are evil. For instance, the theory might contend that wrongful actions performed, or made possible, by large highly complex organizations are, for that reason, no more or less evil than wrongful actions performed, or made possible, by smaller simpler organizations. Imagine further that, on this account, degrees of harm affect both degrees of evil and degrees of wrongdoing. If so, on this hypothetical theory of evil, evil and wrongdoing are qualitatively distinct according to the moderate version of the qualitative difference thesis, but they are not qualitatively distinct according to the quality of emphasis version of the qualitative difference thesis. For there is no property that determines degrees of evil that does not also determine degrees of wrongdoing, and vice versa. The upshot seems to be that the correct view is a disjunctive account: two concepts are qualitatively distinct provided they do not share all of the same essential properties (the moderate version) or they are quality of emphasis distinct (the quality of emphasis version). However, there is a further problem with the quality of emphasis version of the qualitative difference thesis that gives us reason to set aside the cumbersome disjunctive account in favor of the moderate view. While Liberto and Harrington make a fine theoretical point about concept distinctness, they fail to provide any compelling cases where, on plausible accounts, two qualitatively distinct concepts share all of their essential properties. Take, for example, their central case: altruism and heroism. Clearly altruistic actions must be performed for the sake of others, and heroic actions must be performed at some cost or risk to the agent. But is it essential to the concept of altruism that an altruistic action must be performed at some cost or risk to the agent? And is it essential to the concept of heroism that a heroic action must be performed for the sake of others? It seems that negative answers to both of these questions are warranted. For we can be altruistic by sending unwanted money to the needy from the comfort and safety of our homes, without cost or risk. And we can heroically fight off disease or make a risky voyage without 225

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trying to benefit anyone else. If so, altruism and heroism do not share essential properties on plausible accounts of altruism and heroism, and thus, they do not offer a plausible example of two concepts that are qualitatively distinct but which share all of their essential properties. The same goes for Liberto’s and Harrington’s attempts to show that, on plausible accounts of evil and wrongdoing, evil and wrongdoing share all of their essential properties but are quality of emphasis distinct. For example, Liberto and Harrington suggest that, on Card’s theory of evil, evil and wrongdoing share all of their essential properties but are quality of emphasis distinct. Recall that on Card’s account evil actions are reasonably foreseeable inexcusable wrongs that result in intolerable harms. Liberto and Harrington suggest that Card might be happy to say that on her account evil and wrongdoing share all of their essential properties.37 But, as I have argued above, this is not what Card should say. For while on Card’s account harm is an essential ingredient of evil it is not an essential ingredient of wrongdoing on the nonconsequentialist theories of wrongdoing she endorses. Furthermore, Liberto and Harrington’s suggestion that on Card’s account harm might be a quality of emphasis for evil, i.e., a quality that determines degrees of evil but not degrees of wrongdoing, is implausible. For, while most would agree that degrees of evil vary with degrees of harm, there is no reason to think that degrees of (nonevil) wrongdoing do not also vary with degrees of harm. Why, for example, shouldn’t we think that causing someone 30 units of pain isn’t ceteris paribus more wrongful than causing someone ten units of pain? Thus, it seems that harm is not plausibly the quality of emphasis for evil. Evil and wrongdoing are qualitatively distinct on Card’s conception of evil because harm is an essential ingredient of evil and not an essential ingredient of wrongdoing, and not because evil and wrongdoing are quality of emphasis distinct.38 The same goes for other plausible theories of evil and wrongdoing. Any property that determines degrees of evil also determines degrees of wrongfulness. Pleasure, harm, intention, malice, hostility, etc. may all determine degrees of evil, but they also determine degrees of (nonevil) wrongdoing. If evil is qualitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing it is because evil and wrongdoing do not share all of their essential properties and not because they are quality of emphasis distinct.   Thus, while Liberto and Harrington have made an interesting metaphysical discovery about the relationship between concepts, their version of the qualitative difference thesis is incomplete and not applicable to the debate about whether evil and wrongdoing are qualitatively distinct. Hence, we should stick with the moderate version of the qualitative difference thesis rather than move to the more cumbersome disjunctive version.

Evil is qualitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing In the previous section I argued for the moderate version of the qualitative difference thesis. According to the moderate version, evil is qualitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing provided the essential properties of the concept of evil are not the same as the essential properties of the concept of wrongdoing but had to greater or lesser degrees. So now the question becomes: do the concepts of evil and wrongdoing share all of their essential properties to greater or lesser degrees? To answer this question we need to know about the essential properties of evil and wrongdoing. In what follows I argue that on two of the most plausible and popular theories of wrongdoing, act-consequentialism and Kantian ethics, evil and wrongdoing do not share all of their essential properties. According to classical act-consequentialism, an action is right if it maximizes the overall good and wrong if it does not.39 For instance, on this theory of right and wrong, it would be wrong to murder John to steal his wallet since any happiness that would result from the murder would pale in comparison with the unhappiness caused to John, his friends, family members, the 226

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community, etc. However, some consequentialists reject classical act-consequentialism because they believe that the rightness and wrongness of an action does not depend on whether the action actually maximizes, or fails to maximize, overall goodness; it depends on whether it was reasonable for the agent to expect that it would. For instance, imagine that Ashley buys groceries for a destitute woman from a reputable grocery store so that she can eat, but that some of the food she buys is tainted with E. coli, making the destitute women extremely sick. According to classical act-consequentialism, by buying the food for the destitute women Ashely performs a wrongful action since what she does brings about more harm than good. However, it seems too harsh to call Ashley’s action wrong since, given the available evidence, it was reasonable for her to expect that she would bring about more good than harm. Persuaded by these sorts of problem cases, some consequentialists have moved from classical act-consequentialism to expected consequence act-consequentialism, according to which, an action is right if it is reasonable to expect that it will best promote the good and wrong if it is not.40 Do evil and wrongdoing share all of their essential properties to differing degrees on classical or expected consequence act-consequentialist understandings of wrongdoing? According to these theories of wrongdoing, the essential property of wrongful action is a failure to maximize actual or expected overall goodness. The following case, which I call Malicious Hirer, gives us reason to think that a failure to maximize actual or expected overall goodness is not an essential property of evil. A has the power to hire a candidate for a prestigious well-paying job: President of a charity organization called Good Deeds. Two people have applied: B and C. B has worked hard to acquire the education and experience for this specific job, and she is [highly] qualified for the job. A is aware of B’s qualifications. A also knows that if B doesn’t get the job she will be devastated and suffer a severe depression. A knows that C is equally well-qualified for the job but that C will not suffer a depression if she doesn’t get the job. However, the situation is such that if C gets the job the lives of a lot of people will be greatly improved. C is a celebrity. If C gets the job, Good Deeds will receive a lot of publicity which will result in more donations. Let us say that it is obvious that hiring C rather than B will maximize the good and prevent some people from suffering more than B would suffer from the depression. A hires C reasonably expecting that she will bring about these good effects, but she does not really care about the overall good or about preventing suffering. She cares only about getting pleasure from the suffering of others. The reason A hires C rather than B is to take pleasure in the suffering this will cause B and not to maximize the overall good or to prevent suffering. This makes her act evil. But since it is also expected that her action will maximize the overall good her act is right according to [classical and expected] act-consequentialism.41 If it is essential for wrongdoing to fail to maximize actual or expected overall goodness but not for evil, then on the moderate version of the qualitative difference thesis evil and wrongdoing are qualitatively distinct since they do not share all of their essential properties. Let us now turn to Kantian ethics. According to Kant, an act is permissible provided it does not violate the categorical imperative, and wrong if it does.42 Kant gives several formulations of the categorical imperative. I will restrict my discussion to his formula of humanity because it affords us the best opportunity to make sense of degrees of wrongdoing and to develop a theory of evil as the very wrong.43 According to the formula of humanity we must “So act that [we] use, humanity, whether in [our] own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, [and] 227

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never merely as a means.”44 For Kant there are two main ways to fail to treat humanity, i.e., our rational choice-making capacity, as an end in itself, and thus, perform wrongful actions: 1 not allowing other people to choose for themselves how they or their property will be used, and 2 failing to recognize the unconditional and incomparable value of humanity, especially by neglecting, damaging, or destroying rational choice-making capacities.45 Deception and coercion are good examples of the first type of wrongdoing. For example, if I convince you to drive me to the airport by promising to buy you an ice cream cone when, in fact, I do not intend to buy you an ice cream cone, I treat you as a mere means and not as an end in yourself. For by deceiving you I do not allow you to choose for yourself whether you will drive me to the airport under the circumstances in which you drive me to the airport. You think you are exchanging your services for ice cream when in fact you are doing it for free. Similarly, if I force you to drive me to the airport at gunpoint then I do not allow you to choose for yourself whether you will drive me to the airport. In Kant’s language, you do not “contain within yourself the end of the very same action” and thus are treated as a mere mean and not as an end in yourself.46 Assault causing brain damage, suicide, and murder are good examples of the second type of wrongdoing. With assault causing brain damage we severely damage another person’s rational choice-making capacity. With suicide we utterly destroy our own rational choice-making capacity. And with murder we utterly destroy someone else’s rational choice-making capacity. All three of these sorts of actions treat rational choice-making capacities as subordinate in value to something else. Thus, by performing these sorts of actions we fail to treat humanity as having unconditional and incomparable value, and so fail to treat it as an end in itself. Now that we understand the Kantian conception of wrongdoing we are in a position to consider whether evil and wrongdoing share all of their essential properties on this conception of wrongdoing. One reason to think that they do not is that on the Kantian conception of wrongdoing, as outlined above, harm is not an essential component of wrongdoing. For instance, for Kant, lying is always wrong, even when no harm results, since, no matter how harmless (or even helpful) a lie is, when we lie we do not allow another person to choose for herself how she, or her property, will be used, and thus we fail to treat the humanity in her as an end in itself. However, harm is an essential component of evil action, for a good deal of the moral gravity of evil comes from the fact that a victim suffers significant harm.47 If harm is an essential component of evil but not an essential component of wrongdoing on the Kantian conception of wrongdoing, then evil and wrongdoing (on the Kantian conception) do not share all of their essential properties, and thus are qualitatively distinct on the moderate version of the qualitative difference thesis.48 To this point I have argued that evil and wrongdoing do not share all of their essential properties by explaining two popular theories of wrongdoing and relying on some intuitive claims about the nature of evil. To strengthen my case, I will now say more about the nature of evil by sketching an account of evil that makes for a qualitative distinction between evil and wrong­ doing on the theories of wrongdoing discussed above. On my view, an agent performs an evil action if and only if: 1 2 3

she causes or allows someone else’s significant harm for an unworthy goal, she believes that this is what she is doing (or is responsible for her ignorance), and she is sufficiently closely related to the victim.49 228

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A significant harm is one that is so severe that it stands-out in the life of a person normally situated and has long-lasting negative psychological effects.50 Torture, rape, serious assault, slavery, and murder are all significant harms in this respect. An unworthy goal is a goal that, if accomplished, would not make up for the disvalue of the harm caused or allowed to achieve it. Wealth, career advancement, entertainment, and pleasure are all examples of unworthy goals for causing or allowing significant harm. A relationship can be close in terms of social connections or in terms of proximity. For instance, it would be evil to allow a person to die when she is lying directly in front of you. It would also be evil to allow a distant person to die if she is a family member or a friend. It is not similarly evil to allow a distant stranger to die, although it may be wrong. On the theory of evil sketched above, evil is qualitatively distinct from wrongdoing on the consequentialist conceptions of wrongdoing discussed above for at least two reasons. First, it is essential for evil, on the account sketched above, that the perpetrator be in a sufficiently close relationship with his victim, while there is no such requirement for wrongdoing on the consequentialist conceptions of wrongdoing discussed above. Second, it is essential for wrongdoing on these conceptions that wrongful actions either fail, or are expected to fail, to maximize overall goodness while this is not true for evil on the account sketched above. Consider again the case of Malicious Hirer. Malicious Hirer doesn’t do anything wrong on these conceptions of wrongdoing because what she does maximizes the overall good and is expected to do so. However, what Malicious Hirer does is evil on the account sketched above because she causes her victim (B) significant harm for an unworthy goal (pleasure), knows that that is what she is doing, and is in a sufficiently close social relationship (hirer to job candidate) with her victim. Similarly, evil, on the theory sketched above, is qualitatively distinct from wrongdoing on the Kantian conception of wrongdoing outlined above for at least two reasons. First, it is essential for evil on this account that a victim suffers significant harm, while harm is not an essential feature of wrongdoing on the Kantian conception. Second, it is essential for evil, on the account sketched above, that evildoers act for particular sorts of reasons: to cause significant harm for unworthy goals. This sort of reason is not essential for wrongdoing on the Kantian conception of wrongdoing. For, on the Kantian conception, it is sufficient for wrongdoing that we fail to treat humanity as an end in itself, and this can be done for a worthy goal. For instance, on the Kantian conception of wrongdoing, we fail to treat humanity as an end in itself if we kill one person to save five others from a similar fate. In cases of this sort, it is unlikely that we allow the person we kill to choose how she is used, and, even if we did, we do not treat the humanity in her as having absolute and unconditional worth.51 Yet, by killing one person to save five others we act for a worthy goal in the sense explained above, and thus do not perform an evil action. The difference between evil and wrongdoing in this respect isn’t just a matter of degree. It isn’t that evil actions have extremely unworthy goals while merely wrongful actions, on the Kantian conception, have somewhat unworthy goals. On the Kantian conception of wrongdoing, whether or not an agent has a worthy goal is irrelevant to whether her action is wrong. In other words, reasons of this sort (to any degree) are inessential to wrongdoing on the Kantian conception. Yet reasons of this sort are essential to evil on the conception of evil sketched above. Thus, if the account of evil sketched above is correct, there are at least two essential properties of evil that are not essential properties of wrongdoing on the Kantian conception of wrongdoing. Hence, evil and wrongdoing, on the Kantian conception of wrongdoing, are qualitatively distinct according to the moderate version of the qualitative difference thesis. I do not have the space here to discuss other extant, or possible, conceptions of wrongdoing. However, I hope to have shown that we are unlikely to find a plausible theory of wrongdoing that includes all, and only, the essential properties of evil. 229

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Conclusion When we ask whether the difference between evil and ordinary wrongdoing is qualitative or quantitative, we are not asking whether there are any, or even many, qualitative or quantitative similarities or differences between evil and wrongdoing. We are asking whether evil is just very wrong. This is a question about concepts and not about particular individual actions. We have considered four interpretations of the qualitative difference thesis. On the easy version, a qualitative difference between evil and wrongdoing is assumed. Evil actions have “a quality of evilness” that nonevil actions lack. But this just begs the question against theorists who reject the qualitative difference thesis. On the strong version, evil is qualitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing provided all evil actions have a quality that no merely wrongful action has to any degree. This version sets the bar for a qualitative difference between evil and wrongdoing too high. There just isn’t a natural property that all evil actions have that no merely wrongful action has to any degree. Furthermore, the strong version is based on a criterion for determining whether two concepts are qualitatively distinct that we should reject since it doesn’t cohere with our intuitions about concept distinctness, such as the intuition that there is a qualitative distinction between tables and chairs. On the quality of emphasis version of the qualitative difference thesis, evil and wrongdoing are qualitatively distinct provided an essential property of one of these concepts determines the degree to which that concept is instantiated and does not determine the degree to which the other concept is instantiated. This is one way that evil and wrongdoing might be qualitatively distinct. However, evil and wrongdoing are not, in fact, qualitatively distinct in this respect. Any characteristic that determines degrees of evil will also determine degrees of (nonevil) wrongdoing and vice versa. On the moderate version of the qualitative difference thesis, evil is qualitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing provided evil and wrongdoing do not share all of their essential properties. This is the version of the qualitative difference thesis we should accept. On this version, evil and wrongdoing are qualitatively distinct since, on plausible theories of evil and wrongdoing, evil and wrongdoing do not share all of their essential properties. This is a significant conclusion because if evil was just very wrong we would have reason to abandon the concept of evil and call putatively evil actions “very wrong” rather than “evil.” Furthermore, it is intrinsically interesting to understand the relationship between evil and wrongdoing and this knowledge may help us avoid conceptual confusion.52

Notes 1 See Russell 2014: 113–18. See also, Liberto and Harrington 2016: 1591–602. 2 Luke Russell is a notable exception. See Russell 2007: 676; Russell 2014: 112–21. 3 See Calder 2013: 178–9. In the philosophical literature on evil, theorists who believe we should abandon the concept of evil have been dubbed evil-skeptics. Theorists who believe the concept of evil is useful and important are called evil-revivalists. See Russell 2006: 89–105. 4 Sometimes when people use the term “evil” they intend to imply that dark supernatural powers are involved. For others, calling an action “evil” means the action was performed by an agent who is wholly bad and/or cannot be changed. Others use the term “evil” to denote the most morally despicable sorts of actions and persons, without implying that supernatural powers are involve or that perpetrators have no good side or are especially resistant to change. Whether or not these implications are intended, ascriptions of evil are very harsh moral condemnations, and thus mistaken ascriptions of evil can lead to overly harsh judgments or punishment. 5 Russell 2014: 118.


Evil and wrongdoing 6 Steiner 2002: 183–93; Haybron 2002: 260–84; Garrard, 1998: 43–60 and Garrard 2002: 320–36. 7 It is important to note that all particular, actual and/or possible, instantiations of a concept might share inessential properties as well as essential properties. For example, all triangles share the property of having three sides, even though having three sides is not an essential property of the concept of triangle. Having three sides is an essential property of the concept of trilateral. 8 Russell 2014:113–18. 9 Liberto and Harrington 2016: 1592. Liberto and Harrington believe that they have introduced a form of concept distinctness that is distinct from qualitative and quantitative distinctness: quality of emphasis distinctness. However, in this chapter, by qualitative distinctness I simply mean nonquantitative distinctness. Since quality of emphasis distinctness is a form of nonquantitative distinctness, I categorize their view as an account of qualitative distinctness. 10 Russell 2014: 116–18; See also, Russell 2007: 659–61; Steiner 2002: 184; Garrard 2002: 321. 11 See Cole 2006: 1–23, 122–47. 12 Steiner 2002: 189. 13 Russell 2014: 118; Haybron 2002: 262. 14 Russell 2014:116. See also Steiner 2002: 183–93; Haybron 2002: 260–84; Garrard 1998: 43–60 and Garrard 2002: 320–36. 15 Russell 2007: 669–71. See also, Calder 2013: 179–80, 182 and de Wijze 2009: 221. Steiner seems to acknowledge these problems with his view. See Steiner 2009: 255–7. 16 Garrard 1998: 43–60 and Garrard 2002: 320–36. 17 Russell 2007: 675; Calder 2015: 118. 18 It might also be argued that Garrard’s theory does not make for a qualitative distinction between evil and ordinary wrongdoing on the strong version of the qualitative difference thesis that she accepts. For if it is wrong, but not evil, to be mostly unmoved by a morally important consideration and evil to be completely unmoved by the same morally important consideration, it seems that there is no property, such as being unmoved by a morally important consideration, that no nonevil wrongful action has to any degree and that all evil actions share. 19 Russell 2007 and Russell 2014: 112–21. 20 A backless chair is a stool. 21 Calder 2013: 180–81. 22 Ibid.: 181. 23 Russell 2014: 113–16. 24 I am not aware of anyone who holds a purely act-consequentialist theory of evil. However, it is a natural position for an act-consequentialist about right and wrong to take. 25 Of course, the consequentialist would need to say something about how much harm is required for evil. I will set that complication aside. 26 That is, assuming there is a qualitative difference between evil and wrongdoing. 27 Russell 2014: 116. 28 Card 2002: 3–22 and Card 2010: 3–27. 29 Card 2010: 6. 30 I will say more about the Kantian conception of wrongdoing in the section: ‘Evil is qualitatively distinct from ordinary wrongdoing’. Card’s account makes for a qualitative distinction between evil and wrongdoing for another reason as well. For Card, evil actions must be inexcusable. By “inexcusable” Card does not mean lacking adequate excuse. She means lacking any morally justifiable excuse at all (Card 2010: 18–23). But wrongful actions are not essentially inexcusable in this sense on the nonconsequentialist theories of wrongdoing Card favors. For instance, on Kant’s conception of wrongdoing, it is wrong to lie even if doing so would prevent crime, and thus if there is some (moral) reason to lie. 31 Liberto and Harrington 2016. 32 Ibid.,: 1595. 33 Ibid. 34 Ibid. 35 It is controversial whether organizations, themselves, are able to perform wrongful actions or cause harm, or whether all putatively collective actions are reducible to the actions of individual members. See French 1991: 133–49;Velasquez 2003: 531–62 and Isaacs 2011.The hypothetical theory of evil I am considering here need not assume that organizations, themselves, are able to do wrong or cause harm. The theory might instead contend that individuals can perform evil actions only if they act wrongly or cause harm by interacting with an organizational structure.


Todd Calder 36 As far as I know, this position has not been argued for in print. However, Keith Thomas, who attended some public lectures I gave on evil at the Spring Garden Memorial Public Library in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, in the fall of 2014 vigorously argued for this position during question period.This position also bears some similarity to Hannah Arendt’s conception of the radical evil of totalitarian regimes. See Arendt 1994: 437–59. 37 Liberto and Harrington 2016: 1598–9. 38 Evil and wrongdoing are qualitatively distinct on Card’s conception of evil for another reason as well: Card argues that evil actions are essentially inexcusable in a sense that wrongful actions are not. See note 29. 39 Moore 1963: 25–6. 40 See Jackson 1991: 461–82. 41 Calder, “Is Evil Just Very Wrong?” pp. 183–4. 42 Kant 1997. 43 Calder 2013: 184–7. See also Calder 2005: 229–44. 44 Kant 1997: 38. 45 Kant 1997: 36–9. See also Calder 2005: 238–43. 46 Kant 1997: 38. 47 The claim that harm is an essential component of evil is controversial. See, e.g., de Wijze 2018: 25–35; Garrard 1998: 45–9; Morton 2004: 60; and Russell 2014: 61–8. Unfortunately, I do not have the space here to argue for this claim. Note, however, that the claim is not that evil actions must cause harm. It may be sufficient to witness and take pleasure in harm. A white lie does not involve a victim’s harm at all, whereas evil actions must involve a victim’s harm in some respect. 48 Evil and wrongdoing, on the Kantian conception of wrongdoing, do not share other essential properties as well. As I will explain below, it is essential for evil that evil actions are performed for certain sorts of reasons: to cause or allow significant harm for unworthy goals. On the Kantian conception of wrongdoing, wrongful actions need not be performed for these sorts of reasons. 49 See Calder 2015: 113–30. 50 I say a person normally situated because for someone who is routinely subjected to significant harms one more significant harm might not stand out or be memorable for this person. However, the harm might still be significant enough for evil. See Card 2002: 16. 51 We can imagine different scenarios of this sort. For instance, we might kill one person to harvest his organs to save five others who are in need of organ transplants. 52 This chapter began as a presentation at the Understanding Evil conference at the University of Amsterdam, May 18–19, 2016. I would like to thank Thomas Nys and Stephen de Wijze for organizing this conference. I would also like to thank participants of the conference for their thoughtful questions. Special thanks go to Stephen de Wijze for his careful reading and helpful comments on previous drafts of this chapter.

References Arendt, H. (1994 [1951]) The Origins of Totalitarianism, San Diego, CA: Harcourt. Calder, T. (2005) “Kant and Degrees of Wrongness,” Journal of Value Inquiry 39(2), pp. 229–44. Calder, T. (2013) “Is Evil Just Very Wrong?” Philosophical Studies 163(1), pp. 177–96. Calder, T. (2015) “Evil and Its Opposite,” Journal of Value Inquiry 49(1–2), pp. 113–30. Card, C. (2002) The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Card, C. (2010) Confronting Evils: Terrorism, Torture, Genocide, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cole, P. (2006) The Myth of Evil: Demonizing the Enemy, Westport, CT: Praeger. de Wijze, S. (2009) “Recalibrating Steiner on Evil,” in S. de Wijze, M.H. Kramer, and I. Carter (eds.) Hillel Steiner and the Anatomy of Justice, New York: Routledge. de Wijze, S. (2018) “Small-Scale Evil,” Journal of Value Inquiry 52(1), pp. 25–35. French, P. (1991) “The Corporation as a Moral Person,” in L. May and S. Hoffman (eds.) Collective Responsibility: Five Decades of Debate in Theoretical and Applied Ethics, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 133–49 Garrard, E. (1998) “The Nature of Evil,” Philosophical Explorations: An International Journal for the Philosophy of Mind and Action, 1(1), pp. 43–60. Garrard, E. (2002) “Evil as an Explanatory Concept,” Monist, 85(2), pp. 320–36.


Evil and wrongdoing Haybron, D. (2002) “Moral Monsters and Saints,” Monist 85(2), pp. 260–84 Isaacs, T. (2011) Moral Responsibility in Collective Contexts, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Jackson, F. (1991) “Decision-Theoretic Consequentialism and the Nearest and Dearest Objection,” Ethics 101(3), pp. 461–82. Kant, I. (1997 [1785]) Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. M. Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Liberto, H. and Harrington, F. (2016) “Evil, Wrongdoing, and Concept Distinctness,” Philosophical Studies 173(6), pp. 1591–602. Moore, G.E. (1963 [1912]) Ethics, London: Oxford University Press. Morton, A. (2004) On Evil, New York: Routledge. Russell, L. (2006) “Evil-Revivalism Versus Evil-Skepticism,” Journal of Value Inquiry 40(1), pp. 89–105. Russell, L. (2007) “Is Evil Action Qualitatively Distinct From Ordinary Wrongdoing?” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 85(4), pp. 659–77. Russell, L. (2014) Evil: A Philosophical Investigation, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Steiner, H. (2002) “Calibrating Evil,” Monist 85(2), pp. 183–93. Steiner, H. (2009) “Responses,” in S. de Wijze, M.H. Kramer, and I. Carter (eds.) Hillel Steiner and the Anatomy of Justice, New York: Routledge. Velasquez, M. (2003) “Debunking Corporate Moral Responsibility,” Business Ethics Quarterly 13(4), pp. 531–62.


17 EVIL CHARACTERS Peter Brian Barry

If, as Claudia Card has suggested, “To call someone evil without qualification is to imply that the person’s character is evil” (Card 2002: 22), understanding what makes a person evil demands understanding evil character. A person’s character is composed primarily of her character traits and the relationships between them and character traits are largely made up of clusters of interrelated mental state dispositions (Miller 2014). A character trait like compassion, for example, will involve a disposition to form the belief that one should help people in need, a disposition to form a desire to help another person for their own sake, and so forth. What sort of mental state dispositions are constitutive of evil character? Different answers are offered by proponents of (1) action-based, (2) absence-based, (3) affective, (4) hybrid, and (5) extremity accounts of evil character.

Action-based accounts Action-based accounts of evil personhood postulate a tight conceptual connection between evil personhood and evil action. On such accounts, the concept of evil action is given conceptual priority over the concept of evil personhood, such that the latter is defined and understood in terms of the former (Russell 2012). On the simplest sort of action-based account, evil people and evildoers are simply identified: an evil person just is an evildoer. Call this the identity thesis (Barry 2013). While the identity thesis surely has its adherents and displays an elegant simplicity, it suffers from the fatal defect of being pretty clearly false. We have good reason to deny that someone is an evil person only if she is an evildoer since a genuinely evil person who never actually engages in any evildoing is conceivable: a mean-spirited misanthrope paralyzed by fear of divine retribution or enfeebled by age might be well regarded as evil even if he never actually does anything (Haybron 1999); so might a sedated and restrained voyeur who relishes the endless stream of images of suffering and torture he is exposed to with orgasmic delight (McGinn 1997). If there are plausible examples of evil people who do not and will not engage in evildoing, we have good reason to reject the identity thesis left-to-right. We similarly have good reason to reject the identity thesis right-to-left and deny that someone is an evildoer only if she is an evil person. Mass murder and genocide are paradigmatic examples of evildoing (Card 2002) but the typical perpetrators of such evildoing are not that different from the rest of us, “extraordinary only by what they did, not by who they were” (Waller 2002: 8). But if typical evildoers just are evil people, then, supposing that evil people are 234

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not that different from the rest of us but for their evildoing, most of us are evil people too since our characters are not terribly different from theirs. This result is at odds with the popular belief that evil people are rare (Barry 2013; Haybron 2002a; Russell 2014). Insofar as the identity thesis implies otherwise, it can’t be a surprise that the identity thesis is widely rejected (Barry 2013; Card 2002; Formosa 2008; Haybron 2002a; Morton 2004; Russell 2014). Action-based accounts need not suppose that evil people just are evildoers, supposing instead that evil people are disposed to engage in evildoing. We are told that an evil person is a “regular source of evil” (Kekes 1990: 47–8), that “evil people do [evil] regularly, excessively, malevolently, and inexcusably” (Kekes 2005: 130), that a person is evil if he is “often enough prone to do evil acts” (Thomas 1993: 82), and so forth. Call these dispositional accounts. The simplest dispositional account – the “basic dispositional account” – holds only that someone is evil if and only if she is disposed to evildoing (Russell 2012: 233). The basic dispositional account can avoid the counterexamples that plague the identity thesis: for example, the fact that a paralyzed and aphasic misanthrope never actually gets around to any evildoing does not show that he is not disposed to do so. Dispositions generally are masked when their manifestation is prevented from occurring when their manifestation conditions obtain, but masked dispositions are dispositions: a crystal vase remains fragile even though it fails to shatter when thrown on the hard ground because it is wrapped securely in bubble wrap, and the misanthrope remains disposed to evil action even when rendered paralyzed and mute since the intrinsic properties that ground his disposition – say, his misanthropic nature – have not been altered. For various reasons, the basic dispositional account is probably too simplistic (Russell 2012; Russell 2014), although it can be improved upon. It is common to suppose that character traits are “deep” such that, for example, someone possesses the virtue of generosity only if her tendency to perform generous actions in the right circumstances with the right feelings and such is not easily alterable or corruptible (Hursthouse 1999). Accordingly, evil people must have a highly fixed disposition to engage in evildoing, such that it is difficult to alter or undo their tendency to act as such. Dispositions to act can also be weaker and stronger, and while it is difficult to spell out what it is for a disposition to be stronger or weaker it probably has something to do with manifesting in a greater range of circumstances. Finally, while rather many of us might engage in, for example, genocidal acts were we in the grip of powerful situational influences that do not favor our autonomy, we would presumably refrain were we in conditions that do favor our autonomy. Evil people, by contrast, would not refrain; they would pursue evildoing even in autonomy-favoring conditions, suggesting their evildoing really is the product of their character, not their situation. So, suitably amended, the most plausible dispositional thesis currently on the market holds that someone is an evil person if and only if she is strongly and highly fixedly disposed to perform evil actions when in autonomy-favoring conditions (Russell 2012: 347; Russell 2014: 173). Whether or not S is evil is “settled” by whether S is strongly and highly fixedly disposed to evildoing when “in those conditions in which S is able to do what he really wants to do” (Russell 2014: 174). Can a dispositional account of evil personhood suffice as a conception of evil character? Arguably, accounts of evil personhood that appeal only to the motivational proclivities of evil people are “not especially illuminating as a theory of character” (Haybron 1999, 133). As noted above, character is composed of clusters of interrelated mental dispositions, but dispositions of various kinds including a wide variety of dispositions beyond dispositions to act in certain ways – for example, dispositions related to personality, emotions, beliefs, feelings, and still more. A more restrictive sense of the word “character,” the sense that appears to be the one that Aristotle has in mind, will focus primarily on the virtues and vices of the person in question. But no virtue ethicist worth her salt will allow that the virtues can be understood solely in terms of 235

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dispositions to act; rather, the virtues (and probably the vices) are complicated multitrack dispositional states that dispose their bearers to act, but also to think and feel and reason, in certain constitutive ways (Barry 2013; Hursthouse 1999). Insofar as dispositional accounts look solely to the motivational tendencies of evil people, they are doomed to yield seriously impoverished accounts of evil character. Note, too, that dispositional accounts of evil personhood probably do not yield adequate sufficient conditions for evil personhood. After all, someone might be possessed of a strong and fixed disposition to engage in evildoing yet be greatly remorseful or ashamed of his actions and his tendency to act as such. But the capacity to experience and express emotions constitutive of contrition is morally redeeming and not the sort of capacity one would expect an evil person to have (Barry 2013). But that means that not even a strong and highly fixed disposition to engage in evildoing is enough to make someone evil. They must lack some component of character, something that would otherwise morally redeem them. Evil people may well be disposed to evildoing, even if there is more to evil character than being consistently motivated to act in terrible ways. What else is tied up with evil character? A different sort of account is evident given the suggestion above that evil people must lack morally redeeming aspects of their character.

Absence-based accounts There is a long history in philosophy of attempting to understand evil in terms of a privation, as is evident in the Augustinian tradition (Calder 2007). More recently, contemporary thinkers like Mary Midgley hold that “Evil . . . is essentially the absence of good, and cannot be understood on its own” (Midgley 1984: 14). Whereas dispositional accounts focus on the motivational tendencies of the evil person to illuminate what makes her character evil, absence-based accounts suppose that evil people will lack certain mental state dispositions and that evil character consists in the absence of particular motivations or beliefs or feelings. Again, by way of example, Midgley holds that wickedness – a term she uses more or less interchangeably with “evil” – is “negative” in a fairly straightforward sense: it is the result of “the absence, the failure of other motives which ought normally to balance self-regard” (Midgley 1984: 158). No mad or remarkable motives are necessary to have an evil character; it is enough that someone consistently lacks concern for others or an interest in considering the consequences of their actions. I have already suggested one cluster of mental state dispositions that evil people seemingly must lack: something like remorse or shame or regret in response to their own wrongdoing. But lacking contrition is not sufficient for evil character; someone might be disposed to lack contrition on philosophical grounds – say, because she endorses hard incompatibilism and has purged feelings of contrition from herself on philosophical grounds. Similarly, evil character cannot just be a function of lacking one particular feeling – say, empathy. For some persons who lack a capacity for empathy are not plausibly regarded as evil people – say, persons on the autism spectrum who suffer from Asperger’s syndrome. A global absence-based account does not suppose that evil character consists in lacking some particular mental state disposition or even some small set of them, but in lacking any morally redeeming mental state disposition. Daniel Haybron defends the most developed global absence-based account. Haybron holds that a person is evil in virtue of consistently lacking morally virtuous character traits; as Haybron puts things, evil people will “lack any significant moral virtues” such that they have “no ‘good side’” (Haybron 2002b: 63). The thesis that evil people will lack significant moral virtue admits of a weaker and a stronger reading, and Haybron argues for the stronger. On a weak reading, while evil people lack morally significant virtue, they may still possess “morally insignificant” virtue – that is, virtue that does not contribute to or otherwise improve the overall moral quality 236

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of their character. This weak reading allows that an evil person might be slightly generous to a select group of people or a bit kind to dogs. A strong reading rules out the possession of moral virtue entirely, significant or otherwise (Haybron 2002b). However, if the weak reading were true, then mere ne’er-do-wells – that is, those who genuinely care about the good of others but are never adequately motivated to act accordingly – suffer from evil character (Haybron 2002b). Such people lack significant moral virtue as evidenced by the fact that they, well, never do well. Yet they still might care a bit about other people and about doing the right thing. Ne’er-dowells are hardly admirable characters but they could be much, much worse and for that reason Haybron is right to suggest that they are implausibly regarded as evil people. If the weak reading should be jettisoned in favor of the stronger, then on Haybron’s account evil character consists in the consistent absence of moral virtue, period. One consequence of Haybron’s absence-based account is that a terribly minor change in a person’s character can have a remarkably significant impact on the overall moral quality of her character. If an evil person acquires just a tiny bit of seemingly insignificant moral virtue, then she would no longer be evil, a significant improvement but arguably an implausible one: if a terribly unjust and malevolent and cruel and callous person acquired just a bit of patience or generosity or whatever, then on Haybron’s account we can no longer rightly claim that she is evil, whatever we can say of her (Barry 2009; Barry 2010; Barry 2013). Similarly, no matter how strongly someone is motivated to engage in the very worst kind of evildoing, their status as an evil person is undermined if they possess a modest degree of virtue: someone greatly disposed to torture children who displays at least a bit of compassion for the elderly could not be evil on this account (Calder 2009). This sort of an objection plagues absence-based accounts quite generally. As Card suggests, being evil “is to have something real . . . in one’s character, in virtue of which one’s evildoing would be no accident” (Card 2002: 22). But, insofar as absence-based accounts only speak to what evil people lack, they will struggle to make sense of the plausible assumption that evil character involves being prone to acting and behaving in terrible ways, to being a reliable source of harm and suffering, and so forth. After all, lacking moral virtue does not entail possessing morally dubious motivation – think again of the ne’er-do-well. In short, absence-based accounts will be chronically unable to explain why evildoing is the nonaccidental product of evil character. Accordingly, absence-based accounts probably cannot, by themselves, suffice as accounts of evil character. But that is not to say that they fail to contribute to our understanding of evil character at all. If evil people will tend to lack contrition or empathy or whatever, then absence-based accounts are onto something. Perhaps absence-based accounts can be part of a more complicated theory of evil character. I shall have more to say about such accounts below, but consider first another contender.

Affective accounts Return to the sedated and restrained voyeur who relishes the horrific images of suffering and torture that he is continuously exposed to. The voyeur is supposed to obviously seem evil even if he lacks any tendency to engage in evildoing, given that he has such perverse and heinous feelings. “Affect” as a term is used equivocally in philosophy and psychology, but I shall understand it in a broad sense to include feelings generally. Affective accounts of evil personhood locate the constitutive elements of evil character in an evil person’s affective dispositions – that is, in her tendencies to experience seriously morally inappropriate feelings. On one version of such accounts, “possessing a certain kind of disposition to have a certain kind of evil feelings is enough to make a person evil” (Russell 2014: 176). An affective account of evil personhood 237

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might instead claim that a disposition to have evil feelings is necessary to be an evil person. There is an argument available for making proclivity for evil feelings a necessary condition for evil personhood, not simply a sufficient condition. Take any ostensibly evil person – say, someone with a strong and highly fixed disposition to engage in evildoing – who lacks any tendency to have evil feelings. Then imagine a counterpart otherwise identical but possessed of such a tendency. If the counterpart is plausibly regarded as suffering from a worse sort of character, then the counterpart is at least a stronger candidate for being described as evil. What sort of affective tendencies might be tied up with evil character on an affective account? What sort of feelings are most plausibly regarded as evil feelings? The most obvious and popular examples are antisympathetic feelings – that is, feelings involving taking pleasure in another person’s pain and suffering or feeling pain in response to another’s happiness or success (Haybron 1999; McGinn 1999; Russell 2014). The voyeur would seem to suffer from a particular kind of antisympathetic feeling, some variety of Schadenfreude that disposes him to take great pleasure in the suffering of others. The typical affective account takes pleasure in the suffering of others to be the prototypical evil feeling. In the same way that some philosophers think that there is a close connection between evil action and pleasure (Steiner 2002), Colin McGinn suggests that there is a “close connection between evil and pleasure” (McGinn 1997: 91) with respect to evil people. McGinn proposes the beginnings of an affective account in the following passage: Imagine the following two species of beings—call them the G-beings and the E-beings. The G-beings are such that when another member of the species experiences pleasure, they too experience pleasure, while when another experiences pain they feel pain. The interpersonal laws of feeling preserve pleasure and pain, so that cause and effect will be of the same hedonic type. The E-beings, on the other hand, exemplify the opposite laws of social psychology: pleasure in one causes pain in another, and pain causes pleasure. . . . What matters is that the two species invert each other’s interpersonal hedonic laws. Their hedonic dispositions are the exact reverse of each other. (McGinn 1997: 61) McGinn’s E-beings are disposed to feel pleasure when the rest of mankind suffers pain and feel pain when the rest of mankind feels pleasure. But some care is appropriate here. Are all cases of Schadenfreude morally dubious? No less than Immanuel Kant notes without objection that everyone enjoys seeing the right good beating of a pest who annoys and vexes peaceloving folk. Of course, the suffering of the pest is probably deserved and for that reason taking some degree of pleasure in his misery might not be morally objectionable. It would remain plausible that evil feelings involve, or most typically involve, “inexcusable morally deprived pleasure . . . taken in witnessing or contemplating the extreme suffering of particular innocent victims” (Russell 2014: 180). While McGinn follows the usual route of the proponent of affective accounts insofar as he discusses Schadenfreude, his discussion of E-beings suggests another candidate for evil feelings as well. Note that, on McGinn’s proposal, an evil person has another kind of inverted hedonic tendency distinct from a tendency for Schadenfreude: she feels pain at the pleasures of others. Here, too, McGinn’s proposal needs refinement. Envy is also an antisympathetic feeling but if taking pleasure in another person’s extreme pain is worse than feeling pain in response to their extreme pleasure, then even a heightened capacity for envy might not count as an evil feeling (Russell 2014). Further, just as it is not clear that it is always morally inappropriate to take pleasure in another person’s pain, it is not clear that it is always morally inappropriate to feel pain in response to another person’s pleasure. A perfectly just person may well be pained upon 238

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seeing the wicked flourish and suffer terribly when she sees the especially wicked flourish greatly (Barry 2016). McGinn also implicitly suggests that, while an evil person might be disposed to have evil feelings, the scope of her evil feelings might be quite limited. Indeed, her evil feelings might be focused on one small class of people or even one single person. McGinn regards the wicked Claggart from Herman Melville’s Billy Budd: Sailor as the sort of character who “neatly encapsulates the conception I am working with—the idea of an inversion of the usual laws of interpersonal feeling” (McGinn 1997: 64; cf. Barry 2016). But, if Claggart is an evil person, he isn’t evil in virtue of being disposed to find pleasure in the suffering of others generally; as far as the text suggests, Claggart’s lone target was the moral exemplar, Billy Budd. Perhaps evil people need to be sufficiently misanthropic as to feel inexcusable pleasure in response to the grave suffering of others quite generally, but perhaps a disposition to feel such pleasure in response to the grave suffering of some small proper sub-set of humanity suffices as an evil feeling too. There might be other antisympathetic feelings that don’t involve taking pleasure in another’s pain or pain in her pleasure. In a very different context, David Lewis suggests that “it is evil to admire someone evil in full recognition of the characteristics and actions that express their evil” (Lewis 2007: 239). Evil character thus functions as a kind of contagion: admiring an evil person makes the admirer evil as well. In any case, Schadenfreude, envy, and evil admiration are all examples of “pure vices” – that is, “attitudes that are inappropriately oriented to their objects, including the love of an evil” (Hurka 2001: 92). And, if the pure vices are the worst among the vices (Hurka 2001), then they would seem to be plausibly regarded as constitutive components of evil character. How plausible are affective accounts of evil character? Consider yet again the sedated and restrained voyeur, an archetype of the affective account. One might question whether the voyeur’s evil feelings are enough to make him evil on the grounds that fantasizing or relishing in evil is not as bad as actually desiring or intending it (Formosa 2008). Parity of reasoning suggests that being disposed merely to take pleasure in evil is not as bad as being disposed to engage in it. But is the voyeur not disposed to engage in evildoing? To motivate affective accounts, the voyeur must be strongly and highly fixedly disposed to have evil feelings yet demonstrably lack any corresponding disposition to evildoing. Sentiments and feelings are conceptually distinct from desires and intentions, so perhaps there is no obvious contradiction in having the former disposition in spades but lacking the latter entirely (Russell 2014: 183). However, I confess to uncertainty here. In particular, I confess to being uncertain as to whether having a strong and highly fixed disposition to feel evil pleasure but lacking any tendency to engage in evildoing is genuinely conceivable. Such an individual would have to take so much perverse pleasure in the gratuitous and undeserved suffering of others that he is indisputably evil yet lack any desire to do trivial things to bring about or prolong that suffering. For example, he would have to lack even the slightest inclination to reach an inch to his right to push a button that activates a torture machine or nod his head to indicate that his victim should continue to be put through agony. Intuitions will vary, but I find it difficult to conceive of such a person. At least, since he takes absolutely no means to realize his end of relishing the suffering of others, he is instrumentally irrational to the point that he does not clearly count as agent at all. There is an important lesson about dispositions that will become relevant later. While it is notoriously difficult to spell out the relevant manifestation and stimulus conditions for dispositions, they tend to be “clustered” such that, if A is disposed to M in circumstances C, A is probably also disposed to do things similar to M in circumstances similar to C. Fragile vases are disposed to shatter if thrown to the ground but also to shatter into several pieces if thrown against the wall, to break if struck with hammers, and so forth. If the sadistic voyeur is strongly 239

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and highly fixedly disposed to take pleasure in the undeserved suffering of others, that disposition is probably clustered with other dispositions that manifest in similar ways in similar circumstances, including the disposition to cause or prolong the unjustified suffering of others when he can easily do so. But that suggests that he really is disposed to engage in evildoing if he is strongly and highly fixedly disposed to have evil feelings. For these reasons, I question whether the voyeur is a counterexample to action-based accounts, but I also question whether the voyeur leads the advocate of affective accounts where he wants to go. Affective accounts are also prone to their own counterexamples. Arguably, it is possible to conceive of an indisputably evil person who lacks any disposition to have evil feelings: Anton Chigurh from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men seems to be like this, and there is a popular image of Nazi doctors like Mengele as cold, bloodless operators who experimented on unwilling Jews solely for the sake of scientific pursuit. Such characters appear to operate at the “hedonic zero,” seemingly lacking in any tendency for evil feelings although greatly disposed to engage in evildoing (Barry 2009; Barry 2013; Barry 2016; Russell 2014). There is no obvious reason to think that there really is some disposition for evil feelings that is being masked and arguably it is at least partly the lack of appropriate feeling that makes such characters plausible examples of evil people (Barry 2013, 2016). Contrary to the argument that began this section, someone who lacks a disposition for evil feelings but is very greatly disposed to engage in evildoing might be so indisputably evil that an otherwise similar counterpart who has evil feelings is not a worse sort of person. And this would be the case if only because the fellow lacking evil feelings is so terrible in the first place. Note too that psychopaths are commonly regarded as paradigmatic examples of evil persons, but they are also commonly thought to lack affect. If psychopaths, so understood, are evil, then evil character seems not to require anything like evil feelings. If all this is right, then affective accounts do not supply even a necessary condition for evil character.

Hybrid accounts I have questioned whether action-based, absence-based, and affective accounts of evil personhood suffice as accounts of evil character. Yet it remains exceedingly plausible to suppose that evil people will be disposed to engage in evildoing, that they are missing something that barely morally decent people will have, and that a proclivity for evil feelings is at least suggestive of a seriously dubious character. Perhaps an adequate account of evil character will not look to just one of these accounts but to some combination of them. Hybrid accounts combine some of the above accounts insofar as they articulate what it is to have an evil character. Hybrid accounts can be either agglomerative or disjunctive. Agglomerative accounts make evil personhood a function of some combination of a disposition to evildoing or tendency to have evil feelings or to lack some morally significant mental state disposition, perhaps all three. Disjunctive accounts suppose that one or more of the three accounts is individually sufficient for evil character, though none is singularly necessary. Exactly what an agglomerative account will look like varies from proposal to proposal, yet such accounts are pretty common. For example, Paul Formosa contends that an evil person is “an unreformed person who repeatedly perpetrates, or at least intends to perpetrate, evil acts” (Formosa 2008, 233). Formosa rightly notes that “[a]lmost all of the work in this conception of evil persons is performed by the prior conception of evil acts that it builds on” (Formosa 2008, 233) but it also requires that an evil person be “unreformed” – presumably, lacking in contrition. While Haybron suggests that being evil amounts to lacking significant moral virtue, he also explicitly favors an “affective-motivational” account: on this account, evil people are moved 240

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and motivated in ways that differ radically from even from ordinary wrongdoers, but they also lack the moral sensibilities of decent citizens and typical violent criminals alike (Haybron 2002a: 271). Hillel Steiner at least suggests a hybrid account, although he officially offers an account of evil action and not an account of evil personhood in defending the thesis that evil actions are morally wrong acts that are pleasurable for their doers (Steiner 2002). If a merely morally prohibited action is wrong but not-quite-evil, then parity of reasoning suggests that someone merely disposed to wrongdoing is also not-quite-evil. And, if an evil action is both wrong and pleasurable, then perhaps an evil person is both disposed to evildoing and to have evil feelings. Adam Morton comes close to combining all three insofar as he commends thinking of an evil person as “one whose personality has as a central element some way of negotiating the barriers” that keep the rest of us from engaging in evil acts (Morton 2004: 65). If the personality of an evil person allows her to negotiate the barriers to evildoing that restrain the rest of us, then she seems to be disposed to evildoing. But presumably those barriers will include painful feelings associated with guilt or shame or remorse; the evil person will thus lack any tendency to feel those feelings. And finding pleasure in the suffering of others is an incentive to navigating those barriers. Agglomerative accounts can be pretty demanding, clearly more demanding than any single account considered thus far, but the sort of character they describe is going to be pretty undeniably evil, a virtue of such accounts. Disjunctive accounts are interestingly common. Russell’s “full account of evil personhood” allows that being strongly and highly fixedly disposed to evildoing or to have unrepudiated evil feelings is sufficient for being evil (Russell 2014: 192). Stephen de Wijze entertains the possibility that an evil person has the disposition to “welcome evil actions” manifested by either engaging in evildoing or by enjoying the commission of evil actions by others (de Wijze 2002: 231). Card suggests that someone “may rightly be judged to be an evil person on the basis of persistent and effective evil motives or intentions (or both) or on the basis of persistent gross negligence or recklessness” (Card 2002: 21). The former basis suggests sympathy with an action-based account, while the latter basis, insofar as it suggests that an evil person lacks an adequate concern for the harm or risk that she places others in, suggests an absence-based account. Todd Calder proposes that there are evil characters “wholly, or almost wholly, lacking in empathy and concern” and that there are evil characters possessed of “evil motives or intentions on a regular basis” (Calder 2009: 26). If there is more than one route to being evil, then disjunctive accounts may well seem plausible. The plausibility of a disjunctive account of evil personhood will depend on what one thinks of conceptual pluralism about evil – that is, the view that there are a number of folk conceptions of evil personhood but no sufficient reason to prefer one conception against the others (Russell 2014). If one is generally unopposed to conceptual pluralism, then one may well be fine with a disjunctive account; if not, then not. More problematically, a disjunctive account is only as plausible as its individual disjuncts. I have suggested reasons for thinking that actionbased, absence-based, and affective accounts of evil personhood do not suffice as accounts of evil character. But, if none of those accounts is individually adequate as an account of evil character, then a disjunction of them isn’t going to be adequate either. Agglomerative accounts have better prospects here; even if no one account of evil character is sufficient on its own, the deficiencies of any one might be overcome when paired with a different account. However, there has to be some worry that an agglomerative account is going to be overly demanding. It is difficult enough to find people who have an adequate disposition to be moved to evildoing; it will be even more difficult to find an actual evil person with the requisite motivational disposition and some requisite affective disposition, for example. So, there has to be some worry that agglomerative accounts will simply define the evil person out 241

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of existence, the downside to their demanding nature noted above. More problematically, if agglomerative accounts of evil character are at all plausible, then a different and arguably richer account of evil character should seem even more plausible. I discuss this account below.

Extremity accounts I have already suggested that a person’s character is composed of a series of mental state dispositions and their relations. These dispositions can be fairly coarse-grained and general – say, a disposition to do just things – or fairly fine-grained and specific – say, a disposition to give moderate assistance to other persons in close physical proximity who are in dire need. Things can come in degrees here. The more that a description of a person’s character includes finegrained dispositions and the more such dispositions it names, the richer it is. An especially rich account of evil character will appeal to multiple fine-grained dispositions, and thereby proffers a more complete and correspondingly richer explanation of the evil person’s predictable tendency to engage in evildoing. Talk of multiple fine-grained mental state dispositions suggests a different account of evil character. Again, the virtues are best understood as multitrack dispositional states that dispose their bearers to think and act and feel and reason in particular constitutive ways. Arguably, the vices should be understood in a similar way (Barry 2010; Barry 2013). But then there should be an obvious sense in which an account of evil character will have to make some sort of appeal to the vices of the evil person. For example, John Kekes suggests that “[t]he vices of some people are lasting and predictable sources of evil, and calling people dominated by their vices evil merely registers this fact” (Kekes 1990: 8). But this can’t be quite right. There is a range of moral vices, some of which are comparatively worse than others, and evil people are not well understood as being evil in virtue of being merely unkind or somewhat lazy (Barry 2010; Barry 2013). If suffering from moral vice was sufficient to suffer from evil character, evil people would be implausibly common. Extremity accounts focus on moral vice as the essential component of evil character, but not just any sort of vice: it is extreme vice that makes for evil character on such accounts. Virtues and vices can be more or less extreme as a function of both their intensity and the value of their object (Hurka 2001; Barry 2013). The intensity of a vice involves its motivational capacity: other things being equal, the more a vice disposes its agent to act, the more intense that vice. Vices can also count as extreme in virtue of having especially morally disvaluable objects. Two different vices might both have morally disvaluable objects but, if the object of one vice is worse than the other, then it is more extreme in this second sense. Vices might be extreme in one sense but not the other; slight maliciousness is possible, as is exceptional rudeness. Most plausibly, people suffer from evil character when they suffer from vices that are extreme in both senses – that is, when their characters are marked by vices with especially morally disvaluable objects possessed to significant degrees. So understood, evil people are not merely very boorish or somewhat callous; rather, they are greatly possessed of some of the very worst vices (Barry 2009; Barry 2010; Barry 2013; Barry 2016). Extremity accounts need not mandate that any one vice in particular is constitutive of evil character and they can allow that multiple extreme vices suffice for being evil; for example, someone might suffer from evil character in virtue of being greatly cruel or in virtue of being exceptionally callous. An extremity account of evil character is disjunctive, but not wildly so, since the various extreme vices that suffice for evil character are interrelated. Here, too, relevant dispositions will tend to “cluster.” For example, the disposition to act in ways that injure others is constitutive of malice but also of miserliness and injustice, while reliably lying is constitutive 242

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of dishonesty but also unhelpfulness and excessive humility (Barry 2013). No surprise, then, if persons suffering from one extreme vice will tend to suffer from others, too. Evil character, so understood, will manifest in any number of serious character flaws that ensure that an evil person is thoroughly wicked and reprehensible (Barry 2013). Note too that extremity accounts effectively incorporate the most plausible parts of the other accounts of evil character considered above. Insofar as the vices are multitrack dispositional states, extremity accounts can allow that evil character will involve a disposition to act in terrible ways; vices will certainly involve tendencies to act in certain ways in certain circumstances. They can also allow that the evil person will lack compassion or empathy or simple decency as absence-based accounts would have it since the possession of extreme vice will tend to drive out such things. They can finally allow that evil people will tend to suffer from something akin to evil feelings since the vices involve dispositions to feel in certain constitutive ways. To the extent that agglomerative accounts promise to locate evil character in motivational and affective dispositions, they approach extremity accounts although extremity accounts offer a more straightforward account of evil character. After all, what are more obvious examples of character traits than the virtues and vices? Extremity accounts are plagued by their own challenges. Note that Russell’s dispositional account defined evil personhood in terms of a complicated disposition to engage in evildoing; so understood, evil personhood is defined in terms of a propensity for evil action. Extremity accounts do not define evil personhood in terms of evil action; there is no vice, extreme or otherwise, that is plausibly understood as involving a coarse-grained disposition to engage in evildoing – as opposed to cruel actions or unjust actions or callous actions, or whatever. If there are good reasons to think that evil action needs to be well understood prior to understanding evil personhood (de Wijze 2016; Russell 2014) then extremity accounts seem to get things backwards. Further, extremity accounts too threaten to drive the evil person out of existence in virtue of being too demanding. As allowed above, nonevil people can engage in evildoing; can evil people similarly engage in nonevildoing, perhaps even right action? That would suggest that evil people can possess moral virtue, a result that seems at odds with extremity accounts. Extremity accounts thus seem to demand that evil people lack any capacity for morally decent or morally neutral action, a result that would shrink the evil person to a mere conceptual possibility (de Wijze 2014).

Conclusion The philosophical literature on evil is rich with a mélange of accounts of evil character. For all that, the literature could be richer still if enriched by psychology and other sibling disciplines that can inform the study of character generally. If talking literally of evil and evil persons is consistent with a commitment to some version of naturalism (Barry 2011; cf. Cole 2006), then philosophers interested in evil character should have little hostility to incorporating psychological research and theory into their accounts. At least, if other areas of philosophy can profit by being informed by psychological research (Miller 2014), philosophical understanding of evil could similarly profit.

References Barry, P.B. (2009) “Moral Saints, Moral Monsters, and the Mirror Thesis,” American Philosophical Quarterly 46(2). Barry, P.B. (2010) “Extremity of Vice and the Character of Evil,” Journal of Philosophical Research 35. Barry, P.B. (2011) “Wickedness Redux,” Philo 14(2). Barry, P.B. (2013) Evil and Moral Psychology, New York: Routledge.


Peter Brian Barry Barry, P.B. (2016) The Fiction of Evil, New York: Routledge. Calder, T. (2007) “Is the Privation Theory of Evil Dead?” American Philosophical Quarterly 44(4). Calder, T. (2009) “The Prevalence of Evil,” in A. Veltman and K. Norlock (eds.) Evil, Political Violence and Forgiveness, Lanham, MD: Lexington. Card, C. (2002) The Atrocity Paradigm, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Cole, P. (2006) The Myth of Evil, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. de Wijze, S. (2002) “Defining Evil: Insights from the Problem of ‘Dirty Hands,’” The Monist 85(2). de Wijze, S. (2016) “Searching for the Mark of Cain—Barry’s Exploration of Evil Persons,” The Journal of Value Inquiry 50(2). Formosa, P. (2008) “A Conception of Evil,” The Journal of Value Inquiry 42. Haybron, D. (1999) “Evil Characters,” American Philosophical Quarterly 36(2). Haybron, D. (2002a) “Moral Monsters and Saints,” The Monist 85(2). Haybron, D. (2002b) “Consistency of Character and the Character of Evil,” in D. Haybron (ed.) Earth’s Abominations: Philosophical Studies of Evil, New York: Rodopi. Hurka, T. (2001) Virtue, Vice, and Value, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hursthouse, R. (1999) On Virtue Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kekes, J. (1990) Facing Evil, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Kekes, J. (2005) The Roots of Evil, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Lewis, D. (2007) “Divine Evil,” in L. Antony (ed.) Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, Oxford: Oxford University Press. McGinn, C. (1997) Evil, Ethics and Fiction, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Midgley, M. (1984) Wickedness, New York: Routledge. Miller, C. (2014) Character and Moral Psychology, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Morton, A. (2004) On Evil, New York: Routledge. Russell, L. (2010) “Dispositional Accounts of Evil Personhood,” Philosophical Studies 149(2). Russell, L. (2014) Evil: A Philosophical Investigation, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Steiner, H. (2002) “Calibrating Evil,” The Monist 85(2). Thomas, L. (2008) The Problem of Evil, Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. Waller, J. (2002) Becoming Evil, New York: Oxford University Press.


18 DEFINING EVIL ACTIONS Different approaches Luke Russell

The word “evil” evokes a range of different reactions. To some people it conjures up a comic book world in which superheroes use their powers for good, not evil, and in which stylized villains erupt with maniacal laughter when contemplating their self-consciously evil deeds. Yet the word “evil” is not merely a joke or a theatrical convention. Many of us reach for this word when we are confronted with the most horrendous wartime atrocities and acts of terrorism, or when we read about the actions of a torturer or a serial killer. In these contexts, when we seek to convey a sense of somber moral gravity, “evil” seems to fit the bill. But what is evil? How does the judgment that something is evil differ from the judgment that something is bad or wrong? In recent years a philosophical dispute has arisen in response to these questions. In this chapter I survey and assess various attempts to define evil actions, and reflect on the nature of this task.

Why define evil? Most recent philosophical accounts of evil begin as responses to the pressure of a skeptical challenge. Even among those who agree that morality is deeply important, there is disagreement as to whether anything counts as evil. According to evil-skeptics, the concept of evil is explanatorily useless (Baron-Cohen 2011: 100; Clendinnen 1998: 104), and evil is nothing more than a dangerous myth (Cole 2006: 236). Evil-revivalists or evil-realists take themselves to be defending the view that evil is no myth or fiction, and that the concept of evil has an important role to play in contemporary morality (Garrard 1998; de Wijze 2002; Haybron 2002; Calder 2002; Neiman 2003; Morton 2004; Russell 2006; Formosa 2008). Philosophers on both sides of this disagreement are required to tell us what the word “evil” means, and to delineate the concept of evil. This kind of requirement is familiar from other skeptical disputes. If theists and atheists are to engage in a fruitful disagreement over the existence of God, they must tell us what “God” means. Two importantly different kinds of philosophical disagreement arise in such disputes. First, there can be disagreements over which is the correct definition of the relevant word, or the proper delineation of the concept at hand. For instance, we can disagree over whether “God” means the creator of the universe, or the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent creator of the universe, or the entire universe itself. Second, there can be disagreements over whether anything in existence corresponds to the specified definition or analyzed concept.


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For instance, we can disagree over whether a tri-omni creator of the universe exists. Both of these kinds of disagreement arise in philosophical disputes over the existence of evil. There are philosophers and others who have denied the importance of definitions in relation to evil (Neiman 2003: 8; Morrow 2003: 142). But, if we launch into a philosophical discussion without clarifying the concept at hand, we end up talking at cross purposes. One way of clarifying the meaning of “evil” would be to point to paradigm cases of evil, and then claim that “evil” refers to these paradigms and to anything that resembles them closely enough (Neiman 2003: 286). The more common approach, which promises greater precision, is to set out the necessary and sufficient conditions for something counting as evil. Most evil-realists attempt to analyze the concept of evil in this way, and then go on to claim that this concept does pick out moral properties in the real world (e.g., Garrard 1998; Formosa 2008; Russell 2014). To some eyes there is a flexibility in the evil-realist’s task that makes it look too easy, and rather pointless. If we have the freedom simply to invent any definition of the word “evil” that we like, then of course we can defend the claim that evil exists. Yet, philosophers who are theorizing about evil ought to do more than merely stipulate what henceforth they will mean by the word “evil.” The task of constructing a plausible philosophical definition should be constrained in various ways. It should be constrained primarily by folk usage of the word “evil.” This includes both the claims that nonphilosophers make about the nature of evil, and the specific things – the actions, the persons – that they label evil. Philosophers whose definition of evil diverges too far from folk usage of the word “evil” will rightly be accused of changing the subject; that is, giving an account not of evil but of something else. However, folk usage of a term is sometimes inconsistent, and there may be other theoretical goals that are better achieved by definitions that revise folk usage to some degree. Some evilrealists think that the skeptical challenge requires them to show not only that evil exists but that the property of evil is qualitatively distinct from any other moral properties, and that there is a sharp dividing line between evils and nonevils (Haybron 2002: 262; Garrard 2002: 321; Steiner 2002: 184; de Wijze 2002: 213; Calder 2013: 178). In order to secure this theoretical goal, they are willing to defend definitions of evil that are more complex and perhaps less closely aligned with folk discourse about evil (see Card 2002: 3; Russell 2007: 670). Other evil-realists aim merely to show that the concept of evil applies to some real things, not that evil is radically distinct from other moral properties. These philosophers are open to the idea that the category of evil merely forms the extreme end of another moral category, such as the category of culpable wrongdoing (Russell 2014: 120). Regardless, any evil-realist must be ready to meet two objections from the skeptics: that their proposed definition of evil fails to map onto the concept of evil, and that nothing in the actual world falls under their proposed definition.

The concept of evil action In attempting to give a definition of evil, philosophers are not aiming to set out every meaning of the word “evil” as it is used in everyday English. The word “evil” is ambiguous. Originally it was a synonym for the word “bad,” and this usage persists in some contexts (Russell 2014: 16–18). An earthquake, for instance, is sometimes described as a natural evil, meaning a bad event that was not caused by humans. The word “evil” is sometimes used to pick out the concept of morally wrong action, as in Aquinas’s basic principle of natural law: “Good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided” (Aquinas, ST I–II q. 94 a. 2). Neither of these uses correspond to the sense of “evil” that is in play in contemporary debates about whether acts of military torture are evil, or whether a spree killer such as Anders Behring Breivik did evil. All parties in these contemporary disputes agree that the acts in question are bad and morally 246

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wrong, but they disagree as to whether those actions are evil. The kind of ambiguity present in the word “evil” is not unusual. Philosophers who give an account of moral responsibility claim that some everyday uses of the word “responsible” pick out the concept of causal responsibility rather than the concept of moral responsibility, and that these uses place no constraint on philosophical accounts of moral responsibility. Similarly, when giving a philosophical account of evil, contemporary philosophers set aside uses of the word “evil” that pick out the concept of bad or the concept of morally wrong, and focus instead on those that pick out the narrower and more extreme concept of evil. This initial winnowing occurs in all recent accounts of evil (e.g., Card 2002: 5; Neiman 2003: 268; Russell 2014: 18–19), but it is not carried out by everyone in the same way. Some differences in philosophical definitions of evil are grounded in disagreements over which everyday claims involving the word “evil” pick out the concept of evil rather than the concept of bad. The two central folk uses of “evil” that pick out the concept of evil are cases in which people say that something is not merely a wrong action but an evil action, and cases in which people say that someone is not merely a bad person but an evil person. These serious and emphatic moral judgments are common responses to extreme violations of morality. For instance, some people say that Mengele’s medical experiments at Auschwitz were evil, and that the serial killer Ted Bundy was not merely confused and dangerous but evil. Some people say that military bombing campaigns that cause so-called collateral damage are evil, or that politicians who set harsh policies concerning asylum seekers are evil. When we are looking to give a more precise account of evil we need to think about the relationship between evil actions and evil persons. Initially we might hope to give a unified account of the moral property of evil, which can be possessed by both actions and persons. We might claim that evil is the property of being extremely morally deplorable, and that both an action and person can be morally deplorable. However, this unity appears to be superficial. What makes an action morally deplorable is not the same thing as what makes a person morally deplorable. Moreover, it is plausible that part of what it is to say that an action is evil is to say that it morally ought not be performed, but it does not even make sense to say that person ought not be performed (Russell 2014: 40). Instead of attempting to give a unified account, recent authors have offered separate but connected accounts of evil actions and evil personhood. Both Haybron and Singer suggest that we ought to begin with accounts of evil personhood, and from these derive accounts of evil action (Haybron 2002: 280; Singer 2004: 190). Their idea is roughly this: an evil person is a person with a certain sort of morally corrupt character. Perhaps an evil person is someone who has “profoundly deadened or perverted moral sensibilities” (Haybron 2002: 280) or someone who is morally bad in every respect (Haybron 2002: 269). From this foundation, Haybron and Singer hope, we could define evil actions as being the actions that manifest this evil character. This “person-first” approach to evil is more difficult than it seems (Russell 2014: 33). In relation to many kinds of character trait, such as generosity, deceitfulness, and foolhardiness, it is hard to see how you could define the character trait without relying on a prior definition of the connected type of action. A deceitful person, for example, is someone who is strongly disposed to perform certain kinds of actions, namely to lie and to mislead. Granted, we cannot define lying without specifying the occurrent motives or the psychological states that sit behind a lie. Lying requires an intention to mislead. But granting that motives must feature in a definition of lying is not equivalent to defining “lie” in terms of what it is to be a characteristically dishonest person. After all, on rare occasions a characteristically honest person might tell a lie, and most of the things that a characteristically dishonest person does – breathe, walk to the shops, order coffee, watch television – are not dishonest actions. In order to understand what makes someone characteristically dishonest, we need to zero in on the 247

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things that they say, do, and feel that are relevant to their dishonesty. This requires us to have a definition of “dishonest action” that is prior to our definition of “dishonest person.” This same problem arises for those who want to define evil action in terms of a prior understanding of evil personhood. Most of the things that an evil person does are not evil actions, and not every evil action is performed by an evil person (e.g., Card 2002: 22; Garrard 2002: 321; Haybron 2002: 279; Calder 2003: 367; Morton 2004: 65; Singer 2004: 190; Formosa 2008: 234; Russell 2010: 232). As yet, the advocates of a person-first approach to defining evil have not spelled out the details of how their kind of account would work. The more promising and far more popular approach is to begin with a definition of evil action, and then to define evil personhood with reference to evil action (e.g., Card 2002: 21; Calder 2003: 367; Kekes 2005: 2; Morton 2004: 66; Formosa 2008: 233; Russell 2010: 233). For example, an evil person might be defined as someone who has done more than a specified number of evil actions, or who performs evil actions regularly (Singer 2004: 197; Stone 2009: 23). Alternatively, an evil person could be someone who is strongly and highly fixedly disposed to perform evil actions when in certain conditions (Russell 2014: 173).

Evil and wrongdoing We have seen why philosophers attempt to define evil action, and what role that definition will play in an overall account of evil. Let us now assess the specific definitions of evil action found in recent philosophical literature. There are many points over which philosophers disagree. The first of these concerns whether all evil actions, by definition, are morally wrong actions. There is a strong case for saying that they are, yet both Kekes and Calder have rejected the view that evil actions should be defined such that all evil actions are moral wrongs. What is at issue here is not the thought that, when confronted with a case of sadistic torture and murder, it would be too weak merely to say that it was morally wrong, and that if we are to express our full condemnation of the action clearly we must say instead that it was an evil action. Rather, Kekes and Calder endorse the view that one and the same action might be evil and morally right. As Kekes says, perhaps sometimes “exceptional circumstances demand that evil be done in order to prevent even greater evil” (Kekes 2005: 207). If it is true that sometimes you ought to choose the lesser of two evils, perhaps it could be morally right to do something evil. While some people might say that an action is evil yet justified in virtue of being the only means to an important end, this does not imply that philosophers should allow for the possibility of actions that are evil but morally right. As we have seen, there are cases in which the ambiguous word “evil” is used to express nothing more than the concept of bad. These uses are especially common when people employ stock phrases such as “the lesser of two evils.” The best way to interpret Kekes’s claim that sometimes evil should be done to prevent greater evil is to suppose that the word “evil” here means “bad” and does not pick out the concept of evil at all. The fact that an action is bad in some respect – it harms an innocent victim, for instance – does not imply that it is morally wrong. Elsewhere Kekes himself claims that evil actions lack a “morally acceptable excuse” (Kekes 2005: 2), so perhaps he too ultimately believes that all evil actions are morally wrong. Calder offers a different argument for the conclusion that some evil actions are morally right. He imagines a case in which person A performs an action – the hiring of person C rather than person B – that is foreseeably and actually extremely harmful to person B but that is morally justified on consequentialist grounds. Calder thinks that person A’s hiring of C, even though morally right, would also be evil if A was motivated entirely by a sadistic and malicious desire to harm person B and had no thought for the greater good (Calder 2013: 184). Many deontologists 248

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and virtue ethicists can simply reject the claim that A’s action is morally right, because they build evaluation of motive into the conditions for right action. They can say that A’s action was both evil and wrong. For consequentialists, though, Calder’s example is troubling. There is something morally awful about A’s hiring of C, as performed by the malicious agent, even though consequentialists believe that it is best that he hires C. Calder maintains that what A has done could be evil yet morally right. However, if we distinguish actions in a more fine-grained way, even consequentialists can reject the idea that A has performed an action that is both evil and morally right. Objective list consequentialists, as opposed to utilitarians, can claim that some types of motive are intrinsically bad. They could argue that A’s motive for not hiring B is morally deplorable, and that A’s taking pleasure in the suffering of B is an evil action, but that A’s hiring of C is neither wrong nor evil. After all, consequentialists would say, it is morally right to hire C in this scenario, and, if A were not there to hire C, we would encourage someone else to step in and hire C (Russell 2014: 42). Calder’s view appears to clash with what some of us think are platitudes about evil action: that evil actions ought to be prevented, that we ought to discourage people from doing evil, that evildoers deserve to be punished for their evil deeds, and so on. Roughly speaking, Calder thinks that the category of evil actions consists in that of extremely deplorably motivated actions, whether those actions are morally wrong or not. Many philosophers disagree with Calder and maintain that evil actions by definition are morally wrong (Thomas 1993: 74; Joyce 2001: 43; Card 2002: 17; de Wijze 2002: 224; Morton 2004: 9; Singer 2004: 193; Russell 2014: 43). For those who disagree with Calder, when someone has done the right thing for the wrong reason, he has not done something evil.

Evil and extremity Another definitional question concerns the extremity of evil actions. Most recent writers assume that the concept of evil action does not apply to moral wrongs that are merely minor or trivial (e.g., Thomas 1993: 77; Singer 2004: 193; Kekes 2005: 1). According to Card: “Evil” is a heavy judgment. Much that is bad is disappointing, undesirable, inferior, even unjust or unfair, but not evil. Many wrongdoings are trivial. Evils never are, even if their perpetrators are ordinary people and their motives are not unusual. (Card 2002: 7) McGinn and Steiner, in contrast, give sadistic accounts of evil action that allow for minor evils that are “only marginally” wrong (Steiner 2002: 190; see McGinn 1997: 62). These accounts clash with the common folk assumption that evils must be morally extreme. On these grounds, McGinn and Steiner could be accused of changing the subject; that is, of providing a definition of sadistic wrongdoing, rather than a definition of evil action (Russell 2007: 670). Evils are not merely wrong; they are very wrong, or so we might say. Yet, saying this does not tell us enough. There are several distinct dimensions along which wrong acts could be ordered, and it is not clear which of these dimensions, if any, allows us to pick out the relevant notion of the very wrong (Russell 2014: 50). For instance, it might be that evils are those wrong actions that are extreme in that they inflict an enormous amount of harm (Card 2002: 20; Singer 2004: 193; Formosa 2008: 230). Alternatively, it might be that the extremity of evils lies in our reaction to them, rather than in the harm they do. Perhaps evils are those wrong actions that are extremely incomprehensible, or that evoke extreme horror in victims and witnesses (de Wijze 2002: 213; Singer 2004: 196; Stone 2009: 21). 249

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While there are numerous advocates of both of these accounts of the extremity of evil action, it is not obvious that either is correct. First, some harmless yet extremely wrong actions are good candidates for being classed as evil. These include wrong actions that are failed attempts to inflict extreme harm, such as a failed attempt by terrorists to kill innocent civilians in a suicide bombing. It is unclear why mere chance should dictate that this action is less morally grave, and less worthy of condemnation, than an identically impermissible and identically motivated successful attempt. Hence there are grounds for saying that some evil actions are harmless failed attempts (Russell 2014: 53). Further potential examples of harmless evil actions are cases in which a sadistic voyeur takes extreme pleasure in secretly witnessing the extreme suffering of an innocent victim, even though the voyeur does not cause any suffering himself (McGinn 1997: 66; Haybron 2002: 265; Calder 2002: 56). Kramer maintains that such actions do inflict harm on the victim, in that they fail to respect her dignity (Kramer 2011: 219). Thus Kramer can maintain that the sadistic voyeur’s action is both evil and extremely harmful. Nonetheless, if either sadistic voyeurism or failed attempts are correctly categorized as harmless wrongs, there are good grounds to think that there can be harmless evil actions (Russell 2007: 676). One way to make room for the possibility of harmless but extreme evil actions would be to define evils as actions that are extremely horrendous or extremely difficult to comprehend. Sadistic voyeurism, for example, could well be harmless, yet utterly incomprehensible. Appeals to the incomprehensibility of evil are common, but they require clarification. If I say that I find an action incomprehensible, I could mean that I cannot see what caused the agent to perform it, or that I cannot see what the agent was trying to achieve, or that I am incapable of picturing myself performing that action, or that I think that I would never freely choose to perform that action (Russell 2012: 64–8). Regardless of which more precise kind of incomprehensibility we select, the view that evil actions by definition are incomprehensible has surprising and unattractive implications. Such an account renders it impossible for someone to do evil self-consciously under that description, yet such evildoers are common in fiction and arguably appear in the real world as well (Russell 2014: 59). Another problem is that, if evils are by definition incomprehensible, then the property of evil turns out to be relativized to particular groups of observers. We could try to avoid this relativism by specifying that evils are incomprehensible to a certain unified group of observers; perhaps to “ordinary decent reasonable” human beings, as Singer suggests (2004: 196). But there are minor wrongs that are incomprehensible to decent human beings in virtue of being viscerally disgusting, or in virtue of being costly but pointless. These actions are incomprehensible wrongs but are not plausible candidates for being evil (Russell 2014: 60). A final problem is that some evil actions might turn out to be comprehensible and reprehensible to morally decent people. Situationist social psychologists claim that ordinary decent reasonable people would choose to perform horribly wrong actions when placed in certain environmental conditions, such as those present in Milgram’s obedience experiment. If some such actions are so bad as to be evil, and if we recognize that we ourselves probably would perform these actions in compliance with the orders of authority figures, then it seems that some evil actions are comprehensible after all, in light of the flawed frailty of human nature. Rather than claiming that evil actions count as extreme in virtue of their harmful effects or their incomprehensibility, we might instead say that evil actions are extreme in a more heterogeneous range of ways. Russell claims that the extremity of evil actions lies in their being appropriately connected in one of specifiable number of ways to actual extreme harms or extreme suffering, or to merely possible extreme harms that would have been inflicted, had the action been successful. Appropriate connections include being a culpable cause of an extreme harm, 250

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culpably intending to cause an extreme harm (a harm that may or may not actually be inflicted), and culpably taking pleasure in actual extreme harm or in the actual extreme suffering of innocents (Russell 2007: 676). De Wijze goes further than this, defending the idea that there can be harmless “small-scale evils” that are connected only to minor or imagined suffering but which possess sufficient moral gravity due to the extreme deplorability of the motives and emotions that lie behind them (de Wijze 2018: 31).

Banality v. psychological thickness Many of the philosophers who have engaged in the recent dispute about evil would agree that evil actions are an extreme subset of the category of morally wrong actions. Some of those philosophers believe that, once we have specified the right kinds of wrongness, culpability, and extremity, our definition of evil action is complete. Evil actions, they believe, are extreme culpable wrongs (Russell 2014: 76). These philosophers are building on a view famously expressed by Hannah Arendt in the early 1960s in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. In her earlier 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt said that the Holocaust revealed a “radical evil” that goes beyond ordinary wrongs motivated by “self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment, lust for power, and cowardice” (Arendt 1967: 459). According to this line of thinking, evil actions must be the product of a distinctive set of motives. Ten years after making these claims Arendt observed some of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. This led her to revise her view of evil. She expected Eichmann to have been an “abnormal monster” who was motivated by extreme malice and anti-Semitism, yet she discovered that Eichmann was “terrifyingly normal” (Arendt 2006: 276). Rather than being motived by extreme malice, Eichmann was just doing his job and not thinking clearly about the nature of his actions, or so Arendt believed. Eichmann was “neither perverted nor sadistic” (276), and he did not knowingly defy morality or seek out wrongdoing for its own sake (287). Despite his ordinary motives, Arendt maintained, Eichmann did evil; his actions revealed the “banality of evil” (2006: 252). Arendt’s claims about the banality of evil have been very influential, despite the fact that she appears to have egregiously misrepresented Eichmann’s actual motives and character (Cesarani 2007: 353). Regardless of whether Arendt portrayed Eichmann accurately, some contemporary philosophers agree with her suggestion that evil actions do not share a narrowly circumscribed set of motives but can be done for all sorts of reasons, and by a very diverse set of moral agents (Card 2002: 9; Calder 2002: 366–8; Neiman 2003: 283–4; Formosa 2008: 220). This gives rise to the psychologically thin account of evil action. While some evildoers act out of malice and hatred of their victims, other evildoers act purely for financial gain, or merely because they are following orders. Some evildoers take sadistic pleasure in the suffering of their victims, while others are pained by their own evil actions or perform them merely with a grim satisfaction. Some evildoers know that they are doing wrong, while others are mistakenly convinced of their rectitude. What makes each of these diverse actions evil, according to the psychologically thin account, is that each is an extreme culpable wrong. Advocates of the psychologically thin account of evil action appear well positioned to deflect the skeptical challenge regarding the existence of evil. Their view is that evils are simply a certain kind of extreme moral wrong, and there are plenty of real examples of those. Unsurprisingly, though, there are philosophers who reject this definition of evil action, on the grounds that it does not correctly pick out the concept of evil. Some think that evil must be more special or more distinctive than is suggested in the psychologically thin account. An alternative approach is to suppose that the concept of evil is psychologically thick, in the sense that calling an action “evil” tells us something about the motives that lay behind the action, or about other 251

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psychological states that accompanied the action (Russell 2014: 79). Many other moral concepts are thick in precisely this way. For instance, an action counts as compassionate only if it was performed from a certain kind of motive: a desire to alleviate the suffering of other for their own sake. Similarly, an action counts as a lie only if it was performed with an intention to mislead an audience. Perhaps an action counts as evil if and only if it is an extreme culpable wrong that was performed from a specified motive, or that was accompanied by certain distinctive psychological states. Several philosophers have defended psychologically thick accounts of evil action. They think that evils are distinct from ordinary nonevil wrongs not merely in virtue of being extreme, but also in virtue of possessing a psychological hallmark. Advocates of psychologically thick accounts of evil action claim to have identified a variety – a troubling variety – of quite different psychological hallmarks. The most common suggestions are those so-called monstrous traits that Arendt expected to find in Eichmann. Arendt’s final view is that evil actions can be banal, in the sense that they need not be the product of malice or sadistic desires and need not be performed in knowing defiance of morality. Kekes, Thomas, and Vargas claim instead that an action can be evil only if it flows from malice toward the victim. Evildoers, Kekes says, are “motivated by malevolence to gratuitous excess. They treat their victims with ill will, rage or hatred” (Kekes 2005: 2; see Thomas 1993: 76; Vargas 2010: 75). A wrong action performed out of malice seems morally worse than a wrong performed without malice, ceteris paribus. Malice exacerbates the wrongfulness of actions. If we are looking for a psychological feature of evil actions that distinguishes them from nonevil wrongs, we might well latch on to malice and the seemingly gratuitous nature of malicious wrongdoing. Plenty of extreme wrongs are performed out of malice – hate crimes, murders committed by serial killers, and murders of spouses by their partners – and thus are candidates for being evil actions, according to this thick account. However, if this account is correct, very many extreme wrongs fail to count as evil solely in virtue of the fact that they are performed without any ill will toward the victims. Torture performed purely out of a desire to extract useful information from a prisoner could be extremely wrong, on this view, but not an evil action. When considering the claim that malice is a necessary condition for evil action, philosophers need to ask whether this limit to the extension of the concept of evil action clashes with folk judgments about evil, and, if so, whether a revision of these folk beliefs is justified. Some philosophers propose that the psychological hallmark of evil is not malice but the sadistic pleasure that the evildoer takes in the suffering of his victims (e.g., McGinn 1997: 62; Perrett 2002: 304; Steiner 2002: 189). This fits the common stereotype of the fictional evil villain who feels great pleasure upon contemplating his dastardly plans: from Satan, as portrayed by Milton in Paradise Lost (1993: 552, Bk X, 485–93), to Dr Evil in the Austen Powers movies. Like malice, sadistic pleasure is an exacerbator of wrong actions. There are plenty of real-life cases of extreme wrongdoing that are accompanied by sadistic pleasure, including vengeful killings, and the rape, torture, and murder committed by serial killers such as Dennis Rader. Given that sadistic pleasure taken in extreme suffering is shocking and repulsive to many of us, it might look like a natural dividing line between nonevil wrongs and evil actions. Yet if we offer this kind of definition of evil action, we commit ourselves to saying that no nonsadistic actions are evil. Arguably this includes unpleasant and difficult actions performed with mere grim satisfaction by ideologically motivated war criminals. Many people would disagree with the claim that, if Himmler’s or Hoess’s murderous actions were not sadistically pleasurable, then they did not do evil (Bennett 1994: 300; Levi 2000: 20). Again, folk judgments about the extension of the concept of evil may undermine the plausibility of this definition of evil action. A third possible psychological hallmark of evil action is knowing defiance of morality. If all evil actions by definition are morally wrong actions, then every evil action is a violation 252

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of morality. But not every violation is a case of knowing defiance. Some extreme wrongs are performed by agents who mistakenly believe that they are doing the right thing, whereas other extreme wrongs are performed by agents who know that what they are doing is morally wrong. Perhaps evil actions are not merely extreme culpable wrongs, but extreme culpable wrongs in which the wrongdoer knowingly defies morality. Some wrongdoers not only knowingly defy morality; they do what is wrong because it is wrong. When Milton’s Satan says “Evil be thou my good” (Milton 1993: 251, Bk IV, 110), he expresses a commitment to this kind of self-conscious antimoralism. This also seems to be the motive behind the young Augustine’s theft of the pears, “seeking no profit from the wickedness but only to be wicked” (Augustine 1951: 24 (Confessions Bk 2, IV)). Some misanthropic serial killers also appear to desire to do wrong because it is wrong. However, not all defiant wrongdoing is motivated by a desire to do wrong for its own sake. Many purely instrumentally motivated wrongdoers nonetheless defy morality through their knowingly wrong actions. Some people do what they know to be deeply immoral simply as a means to make money, or to dispose of troublesome rivals. Defiance, like malice and sadistic pleasure, seems to be an exacerbator of wrong actions, so it is no surprise that some philosophers have claimed that it is a necessary condition for evil action (e.g., Rawls 1972: 439; Singer 2004: 205; Perrett 2002: 304). Like the other psychologically thick accounts of evil, this definition of evil action is contentious. It implies that an extremely wrong action cannot be evil if the person who performed that action mistakenly thought that it was morally permissible. If Hitler believed that his actions were morally justified for the good of Germany, for example, then this account would imply that Hitler did not do evil. Here, too, folk judgments about which actions are evil might render a philosophical definition implausible. Arendt and her followers would claim that we ought not include malice, sadistic pleasure, or defiance in our definitions of evil action.

Hidden essences and pluralism While most psychologically thick accounts of evil action clash with Arendt’s claim about banality, there are alternative thick accounts that do not. It might turn out that there is a distinctive psychological hallmark of evil action, but that it is not one of the motives or psychological states that Arendt initially expected to lie behind Eichmann’s evil actions. The essence of evil action might be some other complex psychological property. Often we define natural kind terms like “water” or “kidney” by pointing to complex essences possessed by all members of the relevant class, even if those essences are not immediately apparent to many of the folk who successfully wield the relevant concept. Water, by definition, is H2O, and this is true even though many of the people who successfully wield the concept of water do not know the molecular structure of water. A kidney, by definition, is a bodily organ whose function is to filter the blood, even though many people who can recognize a kidney remain unaware of the function of kidneys. Morton and Garrard offer definitions of evil action that in some ways resemble these natural kind definitions. Morton thinks that evil actions are wrongs in which agents overcome a specific inbuilt mental mechanism that ordinarily functions to inhibit violence (2004: 41, 57). Garrard posits a complex psychological hallmark of evil: an act is evil if it is wrongful, and if the agent silences the reasons against doing the act, which reasons are themselves metaphysical silencers, and where the agent’s reasons for doing the act are members of the class of considerations which are in this case metaphysically silenced. (Garrard 1998: 55) 253

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This kind of definition of evil action creates some epistemological challenges. Often it is extremely difficult to know whether a particular action was the result of the inhibition of a specific mental mechanism or was the result of the silencing rather than the outweighing of a certain class of considerations (Russell 2014: 104). Garrard believes that such silencing is present in Nazi war criminals who treated their victims’ lives as being of no consequence. But how are we to know which of these war criminals absolutely silenced the moral significance of the lives of their victims, and which of the war criminals did give some small deliberative weight to the lives of their victims, but then outweighed this with misguided thoughts about the good of the Fatherland? If Garrard’s definition of evil action is correct, it seems that we ought to withhold judgment as to whether many specific atrocities were also evil actions. “Hidden essence” definitions of evil, including those offered by Morton and Garrard, also raise methodological puzzles. When it comes to defining scientific natural kind concepts, we often begin the process from a position of broad pretheoretical agreement over the extension of the concept in question. Prior to scientific investigation, there was agreement as to which samples count as water and which do not. When scientists then discovered that every one of these samples had the complex and hidden property of being H2O, it was plausible to say that they had discovered the hidden essence of water. In contrast, there is significant and recalcitrant pretheoretical disagreement among the folk over which specific actions count as evil. This makes it much harder to assess the claim that evil has a hidden essence. For example, suppose that we did discover that many of the atrocities committed in the Holocaust were not the product of Garrard’s specific kind of silencing, in that the perpetrators deliberatively outweighed rather than silenced the moral significance of the lives of their victims. In this case, many philosophers will maintain that these atrocities are evil, and hence that Garrard’s definition of evil action must be incorrect. Yet Garrard could claim that these particular atrocities, surprisingly, turn out not to have been evil after all. In the absence of prior agreement on the extension of the concept of evil, settling this kind of definitional dispute will be difficult. Recent philosophical disagreements over the nature of evil have resulted in myriad competing definitions of evil action. Some definitions clash egregiously with widely shared folk judgments as to which actions are evil, and thus seem implausible. The psychologically thin account, according to which evil actions are simply extreme culpable wrongs, suggests that evil is an ordinary moral property, and that plenty of actual actions are evil, but it strikes some philosophers as being too broad to count as a definition of evil. Several of the rival thick accounts pick out interesting and important sub-classes of the category of extremely wrong actions, but there is much disagreement as to whether any one of these gets things right. When we encounter several viable competing philosophical definitions of a key concept, we need to ask whether any one of them is the single best contender as an analysis of the concept in question, or whether there are two or more equally good contenders. Perhaps the best response in this case is to adopt a restricted conceptual pluralism; that is, to allow that several definitions of evil action are respectable, and to ask that philosophers who are making claims about evil specify which of these viable definitions they are using in any particular case (Russell 2014: 129).

References Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae (A Treatise on Theology), Parts I (1265–8), I–II (1271–2), II–II (c.1271), III (1272–3). Arendt, Hannah (1967) The Origins of Totalitarianism, London: Allen and Unwin. Arendt, Hannah (2006) Eichmann in Jerusalem, New York: Penguin. Augustine (1951) The Confessions of St. Augustine, translated by F.J. Sheed, London and New York: Sheed and Ward.


Defining evil actions Baron-Cohen, Simon (2011) Zero Degrees of Empathy, London: Penguin. Bennett, Jonathan (1994) The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn, in Peter Singer (ed.) Ethics, 294–305, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Calder, Todd (2002) “Towards a Theory of Evil Acts: A Critique of Laurence Thomas’s Theory of Evil Acts,” in Daniel Haybron (ed.), Earth’s Abominations: Philosophical Studies of Evil, 51–61, New York: Rodopi. Calder, Todd (2013) “Is Evil Very Wrong?”, Philosophical Studies 163: 177–96. Card, Claudia (2002) The Atrocity Paradigm, New York: Oxford University Press. Cesarani, David (2007) Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, and Trial of a “Desk Murderer,” London: De Capo Press. Clendinnen, Inga (1998) Reading the Holocaust, Melbourne: Text Publishing. Cole, Phillip (2006) The Myth of Evil, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press. de Wijze, Stephen (2002) “Defining Evil: Insights from the Problem of ‘Dirty Hands,’” The Monist 85(2): 210–38. de Wijze, Stephen (2018) “Small-Scale Evil,” Journal of Value Inquiry 52: 25–35. Formosa, Paul (2008) “A Conception of Evil,” The Journal of Value Inquiry 42: 217–39. Garrard, Eve (1998) The Nature of Evil, Philosophical Explorations, 1: 43–60. Garrard, Eve (2002) “Evil as an Explanatory Concept,” The Monist 85(2): 320–36. Haybron, Daniel (2002) “Moral Monsters and Moral Saints,” The Monist, 85(2): 260–84. Joyce, Richard (2001) The Myth of Morality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Kekes, John (1990) Facing Evil, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Kekes, John (1998) “The Reflexivity of Evil,” Social Philosophy and Policy 15(1), 216–32. Kekes, John (2005) The Roots of Evil, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Kramer, Matthew H. (2011) The Ethics of Capital Punishment: A Philosophical Investigation of Evil and Its Consequences, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Levi, Primo (2000) “Introduction,” in Rudolph Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz, London: Phoenix. McGinn, Colin (1997) Evil, Ethics and Fiction, Oxford: Clarendon Press. Milton, John (1993) Paradise Lost, edited by Roy Flannagan, New York: Macmillan. Morrow, Lance (2003) Evil: An Investigation, New York: Basic. Morton, Adam (2004) On Evil, New York: Routledge. Neiman, Susan (2003) Evil in Modern Thought, Melbourne: Scribe. Perrett, Roy (2002) “Evil and Human Nature,” The Monist 85(2): 304–19. Rawls, John (1972) A Theory of Justice, Oxford: Clarendon. Russell, Luke (2006) “Evil-Revivalism Versus Evil-Skepticism,” The Journal of Value Inquiry 40: 89–105. Russell, Luke (2007) “Is Evil Action Qualitatively Distinct From Ordinary Wrongdoing?” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 85: 659–77. Russell, Luke (2010) “Dispositional Accounts of Evil Personhood,” Philosophical Studies 149: 231–50. Russell, Luke (2012) “Evil and Incomprehensibility,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 36: 62–73. Russell, Luke (2014) Evil: A Philosophical Investigation, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Singer, Marcus (2004) “The Concept of Evil,” Philosophy 79: 185–214. Steiner, Hillel (2002) “Calibrating Evil,” The Monist, 85: 183–93. Stone, Michael H. (2009) The Anatomy of Evil, New York: Prometheus. Thomas, Laurence (1993) Vessels of Evil: Slavery and the Holocaust, Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. Vargas, Manuel (2010) “Are Psychopathic Serial Killers Evil? Are They Blameworthy for What They Do?” in S. Waller (ed.) Serial Killers – Philosophy for Everyone: Being and Killing, 66–77, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.



Introduction All morally wrong actions deserve some form of moral condemnation. But the degree of that condemnation is not the same in all cases. Some wrongs are so morally extreme that they seem to belong to a different category because they deserve our very strongest form of moral condemnation. For example, telling a white lie to make a friend feel better might be morally wrong, but intuitively such an act is in a different moral category to the sadistic, brutal, and violent rape and torture of a child. The former act is merely wrong and not evil. In contrast, the latter act seems so morally extreme that we need to call it “evil” and not merely “wrong” if we are to do justice both to the moral seriousness of that act and the strength of our condemnation of it. The task of a theory or substantive conception of evil is to spell out what is an evil action and how it differs from a merely wrongful action. But what does a plausible substantive theory of evil look like? To explore this question, I spell out the concept of evil and illustrate four different types of substantive conceptions of evil actions: victim, perpetrator, spectator, and mixed theories. Of these four options, I argue that mixed theories are the most plausible type of theory, before investigating in detail the promising mixed theory recently defended by Matthew Kramer (2014b). Finally, in light of my analysis of Kramer’s view, I present a reformulated version of my combination theory of evil (Formosa 2008; Formosa 2013).

The concept of evil The concept of an evil action that we are focusing on here is the concept of an action that is above and beyond mere moral wrongness because of its extreme moral gravity.1 The job of a theory or a substantive conception of evil is to give an account of what exactly it is about evils that constitutes their extreme moral gravity and puts them in a separate moral category from lesser wrongs. Moral evil is thus a subset of moral wrongness. However, evil is not the only subset of moral wrongness in which we are interested. For example, crimes might be understood as that subset of moral wrongs that should be punished by the state. But evils and crimes are not the same subset of wrongs. While at least most evils (such as torture or rape) are crimes,2 not all crimes are evil (such as fraud or theft). There are still further ways that we might carve up the broader category of moral wrongness. Perhaps, for example, we need the concept of a moral 256

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wrong that is of such minor moral gravity that it is hardly worth condemning at all. So-called “white lies” would seem to fit into this subcategory. These different moral subcategories can be useful both as a moral shorthand and as a way of equipping us with precise moral language for properly expressing the appropriate type and strength of our moral condemnation of an action. Evil is often thought to be the conceptual opposite of the good. But this is a mistake, at least as we are understanding the concept of evil here. If badness is the opposite of goodness, and wrongness is the opposite of rightness, then the opposite of an evil act is (roughly) that of a morally supererogatory act. A morally supererogatory act is an act that goes above and beyond the call of moral duty (Urmson 1958). It is good, but not required.3 For example, it might be morally good and even morally required to help someone in desperate need when it will cost us little of moral importance (Singer 1972). However, when it will cost us our life to help an unknown stranger in need, such an act of sacrifice seems supererogatory as it goes above and beyond the call of moral duty. If supererogatory acts constitute an extreme form of moral rightness (or goodness), then evil acts constitute an extreme form of moral wrongness (or badness). For example, it might be morally wrong to rob an unconscious stranger of his money, but it is evil to rob him of his money and then poke his eyes out and chop off his fingers for the fun of it. This example shows us that evil acts go beyond mere wrongdoing in a way that is analogous to the way in which supererogatory acts go beyond mere rightdoing.4

Four types of conceptions of evil actions At the highest level, theories of evil action are either act-first or character-first views. Act-first views start with a conception of evil actions and then define evil persons in terms of that. For example, an evil act might be one that sadistically inflicts great harm on others, and an evil person is a person who is habitually disposed to perform evil actions under autonomy promoting conditions (see Russell 2014: 173). In contrast, character-first views start with a conception of evil persons and then define evil actions in terms of that. For example, an evil person might be a person with extreme vices, such as extreme cruelty, and an evil action is one that only an evil person will characteristically perform (see Barry 2013). We shall focus here only on actfirst conceptions because these are the most common type of view and it allows us to set out a theory of evil actions, which is our focus here, without first having to spell out a theory of evil persons. We can divide different substantive act-first conceptions of evil actions into (at least) the following four categories: victim, perpetrator, spectator, and mixed views. What makes these different kinds of views are that they each take a different position on what type of factor or factors transform a mere wrong into an evil. According to victim conceptions (e.g., Adams and Balfour 2001: 19; Card 2002: 3), it is something about the extreme type or degree of harm or disrespect that victims suffer that alone is sufficient for transforming mere wrongs into evils. For example, what transforms a mere wrong into an evil might be that the victim of that wrong suffers a life-wrecking harm such as torture or life-ending harm such as murder (see Formosa 2008). Since it seems at least part of what horrifies us about evil actions is how much damage they tend to do to their victims, this focus on the harm done to victims has prima facie appeal. However, victim conceptions suffer from the following counterexample. Assume that I act wrongly by failing to take due care when holding a loaded gun. While acting wrongly in this way I slip over. This causes the gun in my hand to go off and kill my friend who is standing next to me. While I have clearly inflicted a great life-ending harm through a wrongful action, my action doesn’t intuitively seem to be evil. This example suggests, contra victim views, that the harm done to victims alone is not a sufficient condition for transforming a wrong into an evil. 257

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According to perpetrator conceptions (e.g., Garrard 1998: 53–4; Midgley 1984: 22–4; Morton 2004: 57), it is something about the morally extreme motivations, manners or responses of perpetrators that alone is sufficient for transforming mere wrongs into evils. For example, what transforms a mere wrong into an evil might be that the perpetrator of that wrong is motivated by sadism, acts in a cold-hearted manner, and experiences no immediate remorse. Since it seems at least part of what horrifies us about evil actions is the morally heinous motives, manners, and responses that perpetrators of evil tend to have, this focus on the perpetrator’s reprehensible psychological states has prima facie appeal. However, perpetrator views suffer from the following counterexample. Imagine someone who, from the most sadistic motives possible, very mildly, but wrongly, insults a bus driver in a cold-hearted manner to make him feel a little bad about himself for a few seconds, and who never feels any remorse about doing so (see Russell 2007: 676). Although the action here is wrong and the perpetrator’s motive and response are morally heinous, given that the harm involved here is so very minor (i.e., getting the bus driver to feel bad about himself for a few seconds), we would not intuitively judge the act to be evil. Acts such as this are both wrong and motivated in morally heinous ways and yet they don’t seem to be evil. This example suggests, contra perpetrator views, that the perpetrator’s reprehensible psychological states alone are not sufficient for transforming a wrong into an evil. What is missing in such cases is significant harm, which seems to suggest that significant harm is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a wrong to become an evil.5 According to spectator (or audience-response) conceptions, it is something about the response of spectators or judges of an act, typically their horror and incomprehension, that alone is sufficient for transforming a mere wrong into an evil. For example, what transforms a mere wrong into an evil might be the utter moral incomprehension that is provoked by our contemplation as spectators of a wrongful act (see de Wijze 2002; Russell 2014). Given that it seems at least part of what makes an evil act evil is the horror and incomprehension that such acts tend to produce in us, since we cannot understand how anyone could act that badly, this focus on spectator response has prima facie appeal. However, spectator views suffer from two kinds of counterexamples. First, assume that it is morally wrong to eat the most disgusting-looking bug that you can imagine (because the bug is endangered or belongs to someone else) and that if we were to contemplate this act as spectators it would provoke utter moral incomprehension or horror in us (for a similar example see Russell 2014: 60). We simply can’t understand how someone could do such a disgusting and bizarre wrongful act. Nonetheless, such an act doesn’t seem intuitively to be evil. This first example suggests, contra spectator views, that negative spectator responses of incomprehension are not sufficient for transforming a wrong act into an evil. Second, assume that the extreme and malicious torture of a suspected terrorist for fun is wrong and that if we were to contemplate this torture as spectators it wouldn’t provoke moral incomprehension or horror in us since we care very little about terrorists. Nonetheless, such an act may intuitively be evil. This second example suggests, contra spectator views, that negative spectator responses are also not necessary for transforming a wrong act into an evil. Our spectator responses of moral incomprehension and horror are at best semi-reliable epistemological indicators of, or responses to, the presence of evil actions, rather than essential features of evil actions themselves. According to mixed conceptions (e.g., Calder 2013; Formosa 2008; Kekes 2005: 2; Vetlesen 2005: 21) it is some mixture of victim, perpetrator, and spectator components that are together sufficient for transforming a mere wrong into an evil. For example, what transforms a mere wrong into an evil action might be that the perpetrator of that wrong is motivated by sadism and the victim of that wrong suffers a great harm.6 Mixed views are appealing because by requiring both harm and malicious motivation they can avoid the obvious counterexamples examined earlier that cause problems for other types of views. This includes cases of: wrongs involving 258

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great harms that are not evil because they are not maliciously motivated (such as mild recklessness in handling a gun that causes death); wrongs involving very malicious motivation that are not evil because they are not very harmful (such as maliciously motivated but very minor insults of bus drivers); wrongs that cause incomprehension in spectators (such as bizarre bugeating behavior) without being evil because they are neither very harmful nor maliciously motivated; and wrongs that fail to cause incomprehension in spectators (such as the malicious torture of a terrorist for fun) despite being evil since they are both very harmful and maliciously motivated. Given that mixed views can avoid these important counterexamples, they seem to be the most promising type of substantive conception of evil actions.7 Since they are the most promising type of view, we shall now examine in detail as an example the mixed theory recently defended by Kramer (2014a; 2014b).8

Kramer’s mixed theory of evil actions For Kramer (2014b: 49), an evil act (or what he calls “evil conduct”) is conduct “underlain by sadistic malice or heartlessness or extreme recklessness that is connected to severe harm in the absence of any significant extenuating circumstances.” Kramer’s act-first theory of evil actions is a mixed view because it includes both victim and perpetrator components. While Kramer (2014b: 51) mentions the “shuddersomeness” of our typical response to evil, he does not include a spectator component as a necessary feature of evil actions. For Kramer (2014b: 50), an evil act is brought about by one of three states of mind: sadistic malice, heartlessness, or recklessness. Negligence is not one of those states of mind. A perpetrator with one of these three states of mind must be appropriately connected to a severe harm. This raises two questions: what is an appropriate connection and what is a severe harm? Harm forms a continuum. There are clear cases where a harm is severe (such as torture) and clear cases where it is not (such as a soft kick in the shins). Consequently, there will be borderline cases where it is unclear whether an act is evil or not since there is vagueness around whether the harm is sufficiently severe. Nonetheless, Kramer (2014b: 73–84) rejects views, such as those held by de Wijze (2002), Garrard (2002), and Morton (2004), that hold that an appropriate connection to a great or serious harm is not necessary for an act to be evil.9 The appropriate connection between a severe harm and the above three states of mind includes: directly wanting, intending, and desiring a great harm; failed attempts to bring about a great harm; realized and unrealized reckless risks of great harms; being in some way morally responsible for a great harm, such as by working in a factory that produces ammunitions used in war crimes; or being voyeuristically linked via spectatorial pleasure to a great harm (Kramer 2014b: 65–73). When one of the three listed culpable frames of mind is appropriately connected to a severe harm, then the action is evil, otherwise it is not evil. There are many appealing features of Kramer’s theory. It includes both harm and perpetrator components, tries to list all the culpable states of mind that underlie evil, and spells out clearly the different ways that an evildoer can be morally linked to a great harm. Further, by accepting that harm is a continuum, the view can say that some evils are worse than others, although all evils are very morally serious because