Is it really so wrong?

Glen Newey

  • On Evil by Terry Eagleton
    Yale, 176 pp, £18.99, May 2010, ISBN 978 0 300 15106 0
  • BuyA Philosophy of Evil by Lars Svendsen, translated by Kerri Pierce
    Dalkey Archive, 306 pp, £10.90, June 2010, ISBN 978 1 56478 571 8

English has a problem with the morally bad. Terry Eagleton reports his son’s approving reaction when told that his father was writing a book on evil: ‘Wicked!’ Words like ‘wicked’, ‘bad’, ‘nasty’, ‘filthy’, ‘naughty’ have all fallen prey to ironic subversion. The word ‘evil’ is something of an exception: the vestry romps of errant priests and MPs’ abject grubbing for baksheesh fail to do it justice. The same goes for ‘obscene’ used as a term of moral condemnation (though not as a legal category applied to pornography – in that sense obscenity is rarely, if ever, ‘obscene’). Evil jemmies itself into the mind via metaphors of toxicity or pestilence, or with quaint whimsy, as in Hammer Horror’s latex zombies. It poses a problem, as if exempt from Anglo-Saxons’ flippancy and love of diminuendo that, sensibly enough, cut moral grandiosity down to size.

Not that the boulevard press has any trouble speaking in both tongues, often at the same time. The child killers of James Bulger are ‘evil’, as of course are paedophiles; maybe abuse of the Bulger killers would have counted as a deed of righteous vengeance. In the recent flap over Jon Venables’s reincarceration, op-ed narodniks happily affirmed that he should be held morally responsible for the killing. They seldom inferred that ten-year-olds should also be permitted to drive, vote, have sex, drink and run the country. To be capable of evil is, it seems, a more rudimentary feat than being able to drive a Volvo.

‘Perceptions’ of evil are treacherous. On any view, the Bulger killers lag some way behind the UK’s undisputed champion serial killer, the late GP Harold Shipman, who on his beat in Hyde, Greater Manchester during the 1980s and 1990s saw off at least 218 people, and perhaps as many as twice that. But he’s got off more lightly in the press than the Bulger killers, Myra Hindley, or the Soham murderer, possibly because he chose as his victims not photogenic children, but grannies from Stalybridge. The image of depravity can itself be warped by a depraved or stunted sensibility.

Evil can prove elusive, prompting resort to, among other things, palliative taxonomy. The Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen’s book on the philosophy of evil follows hard on the heels of his previous three works on the philosophies of fashion, fear and boredom. Suppose I do something that would be commonly regarded as evil, such as torturing a baby, or a winsome furry animal. Svendsen contends that my act must fit one of four possibilities. I do evil: just because it is evil (when the evil is said by Svendsen to be ‘demonic’); in service of a goal, perhaps but not necessarily a greater good, knowing my actions to be evil (‘instrumental’); having mistaken it for something good (‘idealistic’); or from sheer brainlessness (‘stupid’) – as exemplified, Svendsen thinks, by Adolf Eichmann. Clearly this is not an analysis, if that involves an attempt to explain what evil is. The taxonomy structures the book, even though it presupposes that an understanding of evil is already in place. And this is part of the problem. For Svendsen’s typology of evil to work, one must be able to identify evil acts independently of the mental states that mark off his types of evil actor. Evil has to be treated as an out-there phenomenon, a kind of malignant electromagnetism. But Svendsen doesn’t give many hints as to how he will bring this off, and it is hard to see how he could.

Externalising evil like this doesn’t fit too well with some well-rehearsed views about it. One has it that evil is simply common or garden badness in an outsize box. Maybe not all killing of civilians in wartime is evil, but some killings, like the A-bombing of Japanese cities in 1945, are on a grand scale, and this, it may be said, makes them evil. But it is hard to credit that there’s some critical mass, beyond which the moral account tips – for some n, killing n civilians is bad, but n + 1 is evil. Of course, the progression could be sorites. Sorites shows that differences of quality and of quantity need not differ qualitatively. But, someone may say, evil is peculiar. Disaggregating a heap into its constituent grains annuls its heapiness, just as evil is annulled by seeing it as a series of bad but sub-evil acts.

But this doesn’t seem to get us much further. In the case of torture, for instance, the idea that evil is extraordinary badness doesn’t explain anything, at least if one seeks some feature of the act to mark it off from mere misdemeanours. Nonetheless, it may be right to say that doing evil is doing something extraordinarily bad – indeed, this has an air of platitude. But if we ask about the relation between the evil deed and the evildoer, the going gets boggier.

Part of the trouble is that the worse evil is made out to be, the harder it becomes to explain why anyone would want to do it. There is the idea, which neither Svendsen nor Eagleton seriously considers, that pursuing evil is, in a sense, impossible. It effectively identifies all apparent evildoing with ‘idealistic’ evil, and then denies that the acts are evil, precisely because they are idealistic. Thus Plato argues in the Meno and elsewhere that wrongdoing can occur only in ignorance. The best of the arguments says that whatever you want to pursue, you see as being good; so you cannot knowingly want to pursue what you see as bad. As it’s a fact of common observation that people do pursue what is bad, they can do so only by not seeing what really is bad as bad: they act in ignorance.

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