Newsletter Column 2013 Oct


Is there really such a thing as evil? Certainly, there is such a thing as harm. People do sometimes do harm to others. And there are such things as oppression and, more generally, injustice. If we have the concepts sociopathy, negligence, malicious intent, damage, oppression, and injustice, do we really also need a concept named “evil”?

The argument for dropping “evil” out of our conceptual repertoire – the way that 18th-century scientists dropped “phlogiston” from their conceptual repertoire – would include taking note of the harm the concept does. “Evil” masquerades as an explanation. By calling something evil, we cast the illusion of having explained it and thereby undermine calls for real explanation. Moreover, labeling a person or institution “evil” strongly suggests that the only feasible response is to destroy it. Usually, a more nuanced response will work better.

So maybe we would do well to drop the concept “evil.” This would change nothing about the world’s myriad and deep suffering, but it would compel us to invoke different – and probably more helpful – concepts for thinking about that suffering.


On the other hand, when I recall what I know of Dachau and Treblinka, when I remember the photographs taken in the early years of the 20th-century of the smiling white faces and apparent party atmosphere at lynchings, I doubt whether any term but “evil” can intimate the moral horror I feel. When I feel that revulsion and grope to understand it, I remind myself to look into my own heart. There is no evil out there that isn’t also inside me. There is no human greed, fear, or obliviousness of which I do not also share a measure. For me, then, the quest to understand evil begins with Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s observation:
"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
Good question, Alex. Let us begin there.

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