Giving evil its due: radical evil and the limits of philosophy
Kelly, Johnathan Irving
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Despite Hannah Arendt's prediction in the wake of World War II that "the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of post-war intellectual life," the majority of postwar philosophers have preferred to stay away from the idea of evil. But at the same time that philosophical reflection on the notion of evil has dissipated, there is no denying the fact that referring to "evil" has remained very common among the public at large, among political leaders, and in popular culture. To better understand what meaning the concept of evil might have for us today, in this paper I will address two main questions. First, recognizing the problems recent philosophers have raised against the idea of "evil," we should ask if we should simply take our leave of the concept of evil, admitting that it has been exhausted by overuse, shifting intellectual paradigms, and a triumphant secular age. In other words, does it make any sense for us today to go beyond calling something wrong or unjust or harmful or unspeakable and to speak in terms of "evil?" Is talk about evil simply a relic of a way of speaking and thinking about the world that we have long left behind? Is "evil" in fact one of those terms that have always drawn people into error and sometimes even into committing horrific acts? Second, if we believe we can begin to address this first set of questions about the notion of evil, it remains to be seen what exactly we might mean by evil. What are we pointing to when we call something "evil?" What makes something evil rather than merely wrong or unjust? What kinds of things do we reserve the judgment of evil for? This set of questions leads us to come up with a substantive account of evil, an account of what evil is and what distinguishes evil from other wrongdoing. To address these questions, our argument will proceed as follows. We will begin with an overview of the recent return to discussing evil after a turn away from evil by the majority working in philosophy. After giving a brief historical overview of these shifts we will then begin to argue for the need for philosophers to think about evil and the concept of evil. In short, as I will argue, because we continue to turn to the notion of evil in response to extreme forms of wrongdoing, philosophical reflection is warranted in trying to clarify what we might reasonably mean when we call an agent or action evil. Moving to a discussion of the idea of radical evil, we will begin with a close reading and interpretation of Kant's account of radical evil, pausing to discuss what he gets right and where he may err. We will then move to recent discussions of evil in contemporary philosophy, much of which can be understood as revolving around Kant's account of radical evil. In these contemporary accounts, evil is no longer used in an inclusive, wide sense, but almost exclusively to refer to the kinds of extreme, unforgivable wrongdoing we might classify under the notion of radical evil. In these recent accounts, there is an attempt to distinguish degrees of evil, between the "normal" or "ordinary" evils of serious wrongdoing that we nevertheless can understand, punish, and cope with, versus the "radical" or extreme evils that we cannot really understand, punish, or fit into our intellectual and moral frameworks. After discussing these recent accounts and appreciating the progress they make, we will nevertheless ask whether they can really help us grasp the kinds of horrendous evil they were developed in response to. In particular, we will argue that these recent accounts still fail to appreciate the notion of radical evil to its full extent, preferring to focus on the harm caused and on notions like the banality of evil and ordinary evildoers, projects which may end up distorting the nature of evil. Looking to some recent reflections on radical evil, we will argue that the Kantian notion of a perversion of the will and an evil heart help us to understand that radical evil is something that is usually anything but banal, but is a fundamental breach of our normal standards of wrongness and that this quality of excess and the inversion of the moral is what lies at the core of the acts and agents we deem evil. We will conclude by looking at the necessary limits of any abstract discussion of evil in general and how particular evils such as those experienced at Auschwitz cannot even begin to be explained by such accounts, arguing that our discomfort and horror in the face of evil nevertheless remains but that such attempts at reflection and understanding evil remain necessary and urgent.