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
  • A 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.

On any view, it is possible to desire something that is, in fact, bad – whether or not it’s desired as something bad. Some treat evil as a straight inversion of the moral chessboard. Eagleton quotes Satan’s famous line in Paradise Lost: ‘Evil be thou my good.’ The peevish, quad-bound cacodemon of The Screwtape Letters goes on about the good, when what he (that is, C.S. Lewis) means is ‘bad’. Aquinas thought that whatever is desired, is desired as something good. That makes all evildoing into Svendsen’s idealistic evil. Maybe, then, the evildoer desires the bad, having mistaken it for the good. But is this right? Among the comments seldom made about Hitler is: ‘Say what you like about Adolf, he meant well.’ Why? Does it defy belief that he might have been pursuing his own curdled conception of the good? Presumably, the Führer was pursuing world dominance by the master race, and the subjugation or elimination of inferior races, sub specie boni. Imagine, by contrast, that a testament by Hitler was unearthed in which he said: ‘Look, I realise I’m presiding over a disgusting regime that will become a byword in tyranny, but it’s a juggernaut out of control and I’m too feckless to try and put a stop to it.’ How would this affect one’s view of him? On the one hand, he would have shown his membership, after a fashion, of the moral community; but if, as widely supposed, he was ignorant of these judgments, he has put himself beyond the reach of that community and its censures.

Swedes can be mistaken for turnips, but, with evil, factual error seems not to be the point. Needless to say, the idea that doing wrong constitutes a mistake akin to misspelling ‘apophthegm’, or making a pig’s ear of the ablative, has appealed to many academics. This argument must go, if it goes for anything, for badness generically, not just the moral bad. So, when one faces the fact, as one must, that some people like Pre-Raphaelite paintings, or Lloyd Webber’s showtunes, there remains room, for all one’s shock at the failure of sensibility, to think that these people may have misidentified the good.

One might object that, say, someone who engages in a vodka-fuelled weekend of debauchery probably knows it’s not what she was taught at Brownies. In Ovid’s words: I see good things and approve of them, then pursue worse ones. But this isn’t really the problem, since what this person is supposed to be ignorant of is not what her acts are, but what their value is. The intellectualist view does not say that evil is impossible, only that pursuing evil as evil is impossible. If one can do wrong only in ignorance, one has to say either, as Luke has Jesus say from the cross, that evildoers don’t know what they’re doing, or that they’re not doing wrong anyway.

The claim that wrongdoers misidentify what is good relies on there being a gap between my perceptions of things’ value, and their real value. Accordingly, it seems clear that I can represent that gap in my own mind, even if my awareness of it fails to motivate me. People sometimes choose what they know to be worse. So explaining away evildoing by way of a kit-form philosophical psychology seems unpersuasive. Some people do indeed seem to seek evil as such. A number of writers have been drawn by the thought that evil must be its own intentional object: the evildoer intends to do the deed just because it is evil. Evil is not merely doing bad, even very bad, things in the pursuit of a presumptively worthy ulterior goal, as in instrumental evil; on this basis Eagleton denies that the planned famines and hecatomb purges of Stalin or Mao qualify as evil. Evildoers are not merely willing to cut a few corners to get their hands on the prize; the cutting of corners has to be the point. Or, more precisely, cutting them has to be willed as something that is bad.

Or is fretting over evil just a bit of human hubris? After all, the lives of many ‘higher’ mammals are long on incest, cannibalism, wanton killing and bestiality. Think of the sow blithely guzzling her farrow. Why can’t humans think the same way? Why not regard child murder, say, as simply part of humans’ ethological repertoire? Suppose I purée an aubergine for soup: I pop it in the liquidiser, flip the switch and pulp it. Compare: I pop the baby in the liquidiser, flip the switch and pulp it. Is this really so wrong? Ah, it will be said, but unlike the porker, we know better: infanticide plus cannibalism does not make a right.

Maybe, then, moral knowledge is the key to evil. But that just prompts one to ask what ‘knowing better’ means. At the minimum, it must mean knowing better than to do what one knows is evil; in particular, not to do it just because it’s evil, as in Svendsen’s ‘demonic’ evil. A lot of bad acts seem to be done ‘for the hell of it’. There is, however, a problem with seeing evil this way. The deed has to be really evil, and seen to be so by the malefactor, as this is meant to explain why he does it. You can’t do evil just by, say, dancing naked around a cemetery, motivated by the delusion that this is bad in itself. There is a sense in which satanism is merely silly. This suggests that the deed cannot be evil just because of the motive. But then the reasoning chases its own tail: the motive for doing the act is that the act is evil, but the act is evil because of its motive. If the deed must already be evil before it’s chosen from the catalogue of possible actions, then its evilness can’t derive from its being chosen as evil.

Perhaps in recoil from these difficulties, Svendsen downplays demonic evil and argues that the right response to evil is not to theorise about it, but to combat it. He also argues, plausibly, that this response calls for political methods. Only politics can counter the poison of human wickedness. Of course, as a counter-poison, politics opposes evil with a toxicity of its own. For Svendsen, the summum malum is violence. So his belief that the correct response to evil is to combat it, rather than to theorise about it, coupled with the claim that the worst evil is violence, leads him to the thought that fighting evil means fighting violence. With what, it is tempting to ask. Of course, there’s a long-standing pacifist tradition, as in satyagraha or Quakerism, that treats the main weapon against violence as exemplary: resistance against violence that is itself non-violent.

But Svendsen doesn’t buy an unadulterated pacifism. In fact, he endorses traditional just war theory. Violence is justifiable when, but only when, it prevents something worse – namely worse violence. This might appear an attractive, ready-to-wear consequentialism. But casting the consequences solely in terms of violence has odd results: is there no amount of violence, however modest, that may be used to prevent famine, however widespread? And one can ask what the enforcers do when a large number of aggressors are inflicting violence on a smaller number of victims: should they be allowed to get on with it?

Svendsen argues that the ‘very existence’ of democracy presupposes violence. However, he adds that at its ‘core’, democracy asserts the right to life which violence denies. So, gratifyingly, democracies stand in the forefront of the fight against evil. Launching a war on evil sounds, if anything, yet more quixotic than that other jihad waged on abstraction, George W. Bush’s war against terror. The trouble with a war on evil is that it has an air of pragmatic contradiction. Making war to end war-making may, as the just war tradition shows, manage to shrug off this air. But what about doing evil, in order to stop what is evil? That must be an example of Svendsen’s instrumental evil.

Unlike Svendsen, Eagleton does offer a theory of evil. On Evil argues that it is marked by a quest for annihilation, the wish that there be nothing rather than something. Eagleton quotes Kierkegaard on ‘the dreadful emptiness and contentlessness of evil’; evil seeks nothingness because ‘being is itself a kind of good.’ By contrast with ‘stupid evil’, it seems the fact that one is doing evil, like the presence of the external world, isn’t the sort of thing one could fail to notice. The evildoer knows what he’s at: this seems to be Eagleton’s view. He rejects not just this or that way of ordering the world, but the world itself – a morbid purulence that crows over the absence of absence, over the pointless splurge of being. Evil is literally about the quest for nothingness, the wilful negating of what is, in favour of what is not. In this, On Evil follows Plotinus, for whom evil was literally nothing.

This sounds a bit tough on nothing. But its identification with evil might be thought to follow readily from pantheism: if God, the good, is everything, what can evil be but nothingness? Matters have been fuzzied by Christian sects like the Bogomils and Cathars, for whom the material world itself was a pit of turbid pus. The Manichean dualism that led to this rapturous affirmation of the here and now was, admittedly, heretical: the Cathars, at least, felt impelled to deny the Incarnation. Is the sole alternative to this to discern not just the invisible hand, but the real presence of the Maker in the existence of the Ebola virus? No; or at least, a long argument would be needed to show that the only defence against it is God hic et ubique. Cathar and demon share a chthonic nihilism, which Eagleton rightly discerns in the pallid and vaguely Himmlerian figure of Pinkie in Brighton Rock. World-denial fuels the asceticism and squeamishness of anchorite and antichrist alike.

God creates all stuff, evil is bad stuff, so God creates evil. If so, evil is the very bad stuff that God brings about or at least allows in the face of our complicity or impotence: we let him get away with murder. In Svendsen’s typology, the God of Christian theodicy has to be seen as instrumentally evil. God must be too nice to be demonic, and too smart to be idealistic or stupid, so he must do bad things for the greater good. The standard story has it that humans, not God, bring about evil; God has simply given us free will to choose good or evil. There is plenty of room for doubt that the free-will argument absolves God of blame even for the evils that humans knowingly bring about, let alone all the others. But passing responsibility for Treblinka to human beings only sticks a plaster on the hole in the theological windpipe. We then become a rival demiurge to God, whom orthodoxy treats as sole creator.

If evildoing is not something but nothing, as Eagleton, in line with a Neoplatonic tradition that sees evil as privation, believes, then there is no evil-stuff that God or humans create, and God remains sole creator without being the creator of evil. The idea needs stating with care. To identify evil itself with nothing would amount to denying its existence. Nor should nothing be reified into a pseudo-thing. As the ‘Laughing Philosopher’ Democritus put it, nothing is more real than nothing. Compare the eristic Aunt Sally: nothing is better than God, and a jam sandwich is better than nothing, so a jam sandwich is better than God. Beyond this, there is the fact that some privations come as a blessing. And the flipside of all plenitude is privation: that there’s something rather than nothing deprives us of privation itself.

This demands deft metaphysical navigation. Even if we can get a fix on the notion of privation itself, evil-as-privation faces some awkward challenges. If I do evil by torturing a baby, how does this involve privation? One could say that I display a lack of concern for the baby, or a lack of kindness. But, apart from showing a tin ear for bathos, this way of putting it covers not only cruelty, but mere lack of consideration, thoughtlessness. To show a lack of kindness, moreover, seems a failure of supererogation rather than the gross violation of a moral duty. A pandiabolism of careless material objects beckons, and it’s hard to see how to allay it without bringing in agents with mental states – things, not nothing.

Is evil all about nothing, anyway? The claim itself needs shaking out. There is a clear sense in which evil acts are destructive, as Eagleton’s richly suggestive account implies. But to commit evil is a productive feat of a kind. Designing, building and running an extermination camp could be seen as creative acts. Creativity can be bad, just as destruction can be good – for instance, destroying the death camp. In that case, though, the act may have a good ulterior end, like ending suffering. Evil may share not only the creativity of art, but also its pointlessness: evil, as Eagleton says, for evil’s sake. His idea is rather that evil seeks to bring about a void. It wills vacuity where there is strength, kindness, beauty; or, at the limit, where there is something rather than nothing.

Eagleton seems sometimes to say that evil itself is vacancy, but suggests elsewhere that the evildoer is trying to quash the vacancy within. The latter idea is the more suggestive, and dodges the pitfall of effacing evil by identifying it with nothing. If evil is literally nothing, it is also harder to make sense of the claim that it is done for its own sake. But if the evildoer has a specific motivation, to externalise the bad, it can be understood not just symbolically but literally. His urge is to shunt the inner hollowness over to the unhollow, persecutory other.

In what Eagleton may see as a development of the same thought, he suggests that evil lies in the triumph of the death drive, the vanquishing of Eros by Thanatos – compare the old Francoist slogan, ¡Viva la muerte! That drive, as Freud identified it, amounts to an impulse towards obliteration, or at least towards nothing. As Eagleton says, for evildoers like the Nazis, the ‘obscene enjoyment of annihilating the Other becomes the only way of convincing yourself that you still exist’. This is not simple self-assertion. It is a way to cull, by casting it outwards, the dread of being nothing; or nothingness, nullity seen as an object of awareness. In Heideggerian terms, evil exhibits a radical evasion of being-towards-death, the acceptance that Dasein achieves when it shrugs off inauthenticity.

So evil, as willed nothingness, constitutes ‘a kind of cosmic sulking’, taking one’s ball home in protest at the affront of having to exist. If evil is about escaping a sense of nothingness, this suggests that the violent murder perpetrated by the suicide – self-slaughter, as Hamlet calls it – is quite often evil. This is one of the points where the Roman roots of the theory show up. Indeed Eagleton, a lapsed or post-lapsed Catholic, is caustic about suicides, who ‘may turn out to be no great loss’. Suicide becomes an identification with the other as a prelude to annihilating that other, and therewith oneself. As such it falls prey to pragmatic contradiction: it tries to get away from nothingness by annihilating it. But are all suicides quite so lacking in joie de vivre? Some Dignitas clients seem to deny not that life has value, but that they can enjoy it. Evildoers may have a more nuanced relation to value than simple nihilism, or a wish to displace their own nothingness. Eagleton sees them as wretched, despairing of the very idea of value. But some people find they can do bad and continue to function, even to flourish. Sometimes evil negates nothingness itself. It can be less about nullifying value, than wanting to grab it. Evildoers may value things, such as their own thriving, and the things they want in order to thrive.

Their relation to value is therefore more nuanced than simply wanting to blitz it. They may wish to destroy value, but they may aim to displace it, to introject it, to deprive another of it or assert their power over it. A person who tortures for no reason at all is not obviously more evil than someone who does it for fun. Sadists value certain things, such as their victims’ distress. Evil could be seen figuratively as an intolerance of kitsch, given the diverse valuations that underlie responses to it. A fairy-lit snowdome Sacré Coeur embodies a glazed nullity, reducing beauty or utility to a gesture of inattention. Kitsch ossifies what is alive, mobile, into ankylosed smugness. It shuts the viewer out, and so invites violence against itself. The opposite of evil, in a sense, is camp: a reclaiming of value against the kitsch object’s refusal to yield it. At the other pole from camp lies exterminating the other, as a locus of value: instead of recovering that value, it annihilates it. Kitsch claims to corner the market in the cosy, the homely or cute. This is hateful: it turns value against itself. The viewer recoils from its refusal to let slip anything that could spark a dynamic interchange with it – apart from smashing it.

So nothing is part of the story. But then nothing, like something, is part of everything. Evil may be not just ‘stupid’ in Svendsen’s sense, but mindless: a doing unframed by any structure of thought, conscious or otherwise. Just because there is nothing but oblique talk to give it substance, there is no reason to think that evil has a special psychology. That is the hermeneutic burden assumed in taking certain people and acts as lying beyond the moral pale, beyond the mitigating plea of an adverse background. As Voltaire said, explanation tends towards exculpation. Once a deed is thought of as evil, it admits only of pathologies. If so, evil and explanation are apt to rub each other out: evil beggars explanation. To that extent evil, in Little Dorrit’s phrase, is nobody’s state of mind.