The evil origin of the species

Radical Evil - Creating the Kingdom of Ends - Evil

April 25, 1997


Evil is the Achilles' heel of Christian theology. If there be evil how can there be an omnipotent and benevolent God? The question has exercised pre-Christian thinkers from Plato onwards and Christian theologians from Augustine through to Leibniz. Each has provided noble yet ultimately unsatisfactory responses to the problem.

It might be thought that Nietzsche's pronouncement of the death of God together with secularisation emasculated the language of evil. The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, accepts that the strong sense of evil is obsolete and that the word now means little more than bad. But if this is the case why have three substantial books on or touching on the problem of evil been published so close together?

Christine Korsgaard's Creating the Kingdom of Ends is, on the face of it, removed from the problem of evil in that it is a set of careful and scholarly papers on Kant's practical philosophy written over several years and brought together in one volume. In Kant's kingdom of ends the members are both legislators and subjects in an ideal (and idealised) kingdom, which might have an empirical approximation to be aimed at but never actualised.

Kant had a great deal to say on the problem of evil and it is from him that we obtain the term "radical evil". Kant seems to have found some difficulty in his notion, in that radical evil could not be rationally adopted as a maxim for action. That would be what Kant referred to as "devilishness" and not appropriate as a description of man. Human evil was, for Kant, as for many others before and after, to be explained in terms of a privation or failure of will or maxim. Contrariwise one might well take it that if radical evil did exist it would be the Achilles' heel not merely of Christianity but also of Kant's practical philosophy.

Korsgaard does not deal with this particular problem but she does try to demonstrate in one of the central chapters of the book that permission to engage in evil acts is not completely prohibited by Kant's theory but that it does require the generation of special conditions. For example, Kant took it that there could be no justification for lying but, Korsgaard suggests, the kingdom of ends can be realised only in conditions of peace, conditions which might require war to obtain that condition. These special conditions might analogously require, and permit, the development of special conditions to use when dealing with evil.

More might be made of Kant's wider observations on evil and the author might have exhibited a more self-conscious awareness of the difficulty of translation from abstract principles of times past to concrete practical situations of the present. That said, this is a book which will delight Kantians in particular; for those interested in moral philosophy in general it is a treat.

When Kant introduced the notion of radical evil into western thought he was aware that it could not fully be dealt with from within the confines of that tradition. If no one could rationally adopt a maxim of radical evil, evil could only be a privation or absence of the good. In this he followed a long tradition expressed well by Plato in which evil acts were taken to be the consequence of ignorance. After Auschwitz, privation arguments seemed to avoid the radicality of that event and to miss the point of the extreme possibilities of political evil. Not surprisingly the western philosophical tradition tended to treat even this event as privation, one controversial form of which was given by Hannah Arendt in her controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, where she took Eichmann to be not Satanic but banal. Later, in The Life of the Mind, she gave the source of the privation as thoughtlessness. Notwithstanding this perspective she had, like Kant, left the possibility of radical evil dangling.

Radical Evil, edited by Joan Copjec, is a collection of essays which, while taking off from Kant, attempts to use some of the tools and concepts of psychoanalysis. Kant was the first philosopher both to recognise the power of the mind and to acknowledge its inscrutability. It is not, therefore, inappropriate to approach the problem of evil from a psychoanalytic perspective. Nor is it inappropriate, as the collection does, to approach the problem of evil from the observation that what is striking about civilised peoples is not their civility but their "utter barbarity" in clinging to principles that "they refuse under any circumstances to abandon". One is reminded of Kant's claim, reiterated by Jacob Rogozinski in the second essay in the book, that "the world lieth in evil", or of Arendt's claim that while violence has no part to play in politics, the realm of human affairs, in which politics lies, was built on violence.

The book is a collection of eight new essays in which the problem of radical evil is dealt with from a variety of perspectives and by some notable writers. The first, by Slavoj Zizek, deals with selfhood, Schelling and the origins of evil, and provides sufficient insight into the foundations of the problem of evil in modern thought to justify the rest of the book. The remainder more than complements this strong opening, and in addition, the weakness of Korsgaard's book. Whatever the her intentions, Creating the Kingdom of Ends, while deep and admirable in formal analysis, is weak on historicity and the internalised workings of the human mind. Radical Evil offsets that by strengthening our understanding of the mind's internalised workings and its cultural constitution. If the book is weak in formal analysis that is probably the nature of the enterprise. Analytic philosophy, historicity and cultural and psychological depth, do not yet sit easily together. Copjec's Radical Evil is a feast for the culturally informed mind interested in the deep analysis of its own condition: a must for anyone who wants to know why they are where they are.

Roy F. Baumeister's, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty is, unlike the previous two books, a monograph. It takes the problem of evil from the perspective of social anthropology and attempts to show on the basis of empirical research and observation the context within which the actions of the evil can make sense. Baumeister opens with the prime question of theodicy, why is there evil? That question, which is primarily one of principle, is answered more in terms of observation than in terms of principle. He observes that very few, if any people regard themselves as evil.

Theoretical analysis is rather limited in Baumeister's book. Observation suggests to Baumeister that evil has four roots: greed, lust and ambition; egotism and revenge; idealism; and the joy of hurting, each of which are dealt with in literature, culture and society. It is not clear, however, that any amount of empirical observation or social anthropology could ever answer the initial theodical question, and while the book is always intriguing, sometimes enjoyable, frequently illuminating and often shocking, it is not enough to provide the beginnings of a theory.

This failure is scarcely new. If Plato, Augustine, Leibniz, Kant and others have failed, it is almost certainly the case that either there is no solution, or that the question is misplaced, or that the question raises issues quite different from those that it appears to raise. Clearly there are some metaphysical solutions to the actuality of evil: Manicheism, for instance. But such solutions, while beloved of Star Wars fans, are unacceptable within a broadly Christian framework.

More radically it might be the case that evil is just the outcome of a contingent and unguided universe and has no wider significance or meaning. This will satisfy some but even to the atheist it will be unsatisfying, for whatever the metaphysics might be there is something in the principles raised by theodicy that strikes deep into parts of the western make-up and which cannot be dealt with merely by appealing to the "selfish gene" or other reductive materialism.

The eternal attraction of the problem of evil is to be found in the way in which it defines humanity and challenges Christian theodicy. Christianity must, of course, struggle with the problem of evil and redefine either the problem or itself. In the humanist tradition, however, it seems that the myth of evil is constitutive of humanity. The fall was the beginning of human finitude; it was also, as Dante pointed out long before Darwin, the beginning of the human species, the point at which that which lapsed turned into that which was human.

This is not to say that evil acts are ever justifiable, but it is to recognise with Kant and Arendt that humanity was born out of evil and violence and to recognise that such acts are a regrettable condition which, like ladders used in the climb into humanity, may well be eventually discarded.

Each of these books makes some contribution to the understanding of the constitution of humanity and to its improvement. But perhaps they suggest a further message that reaches beyond the Manicheism of Star Wars: if the force is with you, you may well prevail on the day, but if the force is against you, it is quite likely that you are on the way to becoming human.

Paul Barry Clarke is senior lecturer in political theory, University of Essex.

Radical Evil

Editor - Joan Copjee
ISBN - 1 85984 911 3 and 006 X
Publisher - Verso
Price - £40.00 and £14.00
Pages - 210

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