Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, by Susan Neiman, Princeton University Press 2003
In an effort to take political advantage of the public fear of crime, former British Prime Minister John Major notoriously declared in 1993 that, ‘We should condemn a little more and understand a little less’. Major’s crassness was widely condemned, but the idea that condemnation and understanding are opposites was and is generally accepted.
In fact, condemnation without understanding is meaningless. I condemn somebody’s behaviour not because I don’t understand it, but precisely because I do understand it – I can imagine myself in the same situation, I can see the appeal of their actions, and I know that they knew they were wrong. To understand a crime is not to insist that the criminal had no alternative.
But attributing bad decisions to evil does not solve the problem either. At best it renders it banal, because malice is a trivial thing. Few crimes are characterised by genuinely evil intent. Ridding the world of malice, then, would hardly leave us in paradise. Most crime arises instead from stupidity and laziness, and sometimes not even those. After all, most of the misery in the world doesn’t have anything to do with crime anyway. So what does evil have to do with it?
Neiman’s book goes beyond the consideration of evil as we understand it now, to look at the broader phenomenon that has been discussed for centuries as ‘the problem of evil’. Put in its original, religious terms, why does God allow bad things to happen? Why does He so often seem to punish the virtuous and reward the guilty? Put in more secular terms, why is life so unfair?
Essentially, Neiman divides modern philosophers into those who have looked for either a divine design or a rationally graspable system beyond the often anarchic and unjust appearance of the world, and those who have insisted that things are just as bad as they appear. It is an illuminating way to look at things, and it makes for some odd bedfellows. Leibniz, whose Theodicy was supposed to justify God, finds common ground with the staunch materialist Marx. Meanwhile the sensible-to-a-fault British empiricist David Hume is paired with Shopenhauer, the German miserablist who turned for comfort to eastern mysticism.
Neiman’s first historical case study is the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. This divided Enlightenment Europe, with Voltaire on one side and Rousseau on the other. Rousseau wanted to explain how earthquakes, like other natural events, serve a purpose in the grand scheme of things. For Voltaire, this was an obscene response to a human tragedy.
The idea at stake was not that of a benevolent God, but rather a general sense of Providence. (Unlike Christians, secular Enlightenment thinkers could not simply look forward to justice in the next world.) For most people, the earthquake was a stark indication that nature, at least, was not in on the plan. For the first time, people began to make a distinction between natural and moral evils, with the word evil being reserved for the latter.
This reassuring way of looking at the problem dominated the modern era. It has never been satisfactory, but it was thrown into crisis by the discussion that followed the Nazi holocaust, Neiman’s second historical case study. While Adolf Hitler can be dismissed as evil, the holocaust required the collaboration of thousands of ordinary and apparently decent people. Hannah Arendt’s insights about the ‘banality of evil’ were controversial. If most Nazis were no more guilty than the Jewish Councils that served them, then… Actually, there is no ‘then’. It is just that this thought was unacceptable.
The separation of natural from moral evil depends on the idea that we are responsible for our actions. But what does that mean? To some extent we can make a distinction between intention, for which we are responsible, and consequence, for which we might not be. The horror of the holocaust is that, while there were countless cases of individual vice and wickedness, their consequences were massively disproportionate to the intentions of those who committed them. Without doubt, Nazi officers and bureaucrats were as guilty as hell, but the truth is than in many cases, their intentions were disappointingly banal.
It is not that there is no relationship between motive and outcome. The holocaust was not simply a big mistake; it is rather that people deliberately blinded themselves to what they were doing. More generally, we are usually aware that there is more at stake than what is going on in our own heads. If I am driven to do something virtuous in order to impress a woman, I am nonetheless aware of its virtue. And when I tell myself I am doing something morally dubious in pursuit of a similarly personal goal, I cannot pretend I don’t know that at the very least, it will have broader repercussions.
But all actions have consequences beyond the one that inspires them, and we rarely take full moral possession of those. To hide behind intentions may in many cases be bad faith, but that falls some way short of evil. For this reason many thinkers have considered it immoral even to try to understand the holocaust. This is partly because of the fear of seeming to justify what happened. But the holocaust also added to a suspicion that the world is simply beyond comprehension.
The problem of evil is not simply that the world is not fair. Not only do we not get what we feel we deserve; often there seem to be no rules at all. The world was not designed for us. It was not designed at all. Neiman’s final chapter ‘Homeless’ takes its name from Adorno, who reflected that in the absence of divine design or any other kind of reasonable system, it is impossible for humans to be ‘at home’ in the world.
In a sense, Adorno’s refusal to accept the world is a reflection of Nietzsche’s refusal to accept anything else. Nietzsche went so far as to reject altogether the gap between ought and is, insisting that we should ‘will’ the world as it is, rather than fantasising about how it might be. But we cannot will the holocaust. Neiman cites Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, who refuses to accept the torture of one child, even in return for a perfect world. How can the world be perfect if a child has been tortured?
Such posturing might be morally satisfying, but there is something to be said for Nietzsche’s fearless embrace of reality. Commentators of all political persuasions have looked for meaning in the 9/11 attacks. But this is an exercise in fantasy. Those who blame an evil and alien culture and those who invent spurious justifications for the killers are just as deluded as those who saw either a vengeful God or a somehow benevolent Providence at work in the Lisbon earthquake.
You don’t have to abandon the struggle for knowledge altogether to recognise that the world does not always work in the ways we imagine for it. In fact, any serious intellectual endeavour must begin with a commitment to engage with the world as it really is. And if we don’t like it, we must not blame knowledge, but instead look at the possibilities that exist within that reality. As one of Neiman’s less fashionable theodicians once put it, ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it’.