politics and the problem of evil

The appointment of Stephen Bannon poses the question of evil–certainly not for the first time in recent memory, but forcefully. This is a tricky topic because calling any idea or person “evil” implies a refusal to compromise, to consider agreeing, or to ameliorate the situation by ordinary means. The word “evil” can be a prelude to banning ideas outright or even lining people up to be shot. Perhaps you refuse to employ violence under any circumstances; still, naming something as evil means refusing to tolerate it to any degree.

Manichean politics (depicting the world as divided between good and evil) can be self-defeating. Right now, it’s crucial to form a large majority in favor of basic political decency, and if some people who could belong to that majority feel that they or their ideas have just been called evil, why would they join?

Finally, Manichean thinking blocks learning. I, for instance, was an undecided voter on this year’s Massachusetts ballot initiative to expand charter schools. I voted “no” at the last minute, but I thought it was a close call. I did not benefit from depictions of the proponents as hedge fund managers who wanted to privatize our schools, nor from depictions of the opponents as unionized teachers who wanted to retain their monopoly. I wanted to learn what would be best for kids, and Manichean rhetoric made that harder for me rather than easier.

All that having been said, there is evil in the world–a lot of it. Although neither side in the Massachusetts charter debate was remotely evil, human beings commonly and deliberately harm each other in many ways, extending to mass murder. The theories that most appeal to secular activists for democracy and civil society are often strikingly silent on the issue of evil.

For instance, many democratic educators and builders of local community organizations find John Dewey a congenial theorist. Writing during the decades when hundreds of millions of human beings were intentionally slaughtered in wars, genocides, imperialist adventures, and insane social experiments, Dewey insisted that the “current has set steadily in one direction: toward democratic forms.” This was his rationale for resisting rigid constraints on democracy and encouraging constant experimentation.

Hannah Arendt predicted in 1945 that “the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe.”* In the decades since then, evil has not dropped out of consideration in European thought. But the most pro-democratic, pro-Enlightenment thinkers, people–like Jürgen Habermas–who have devoted their lives to building decent alternatives to Nazi evil, hardly ever use the word or the concept explicitly.

Considering what they have faced, it is not surprising that African American theorists are more likely to use such language. In Black Reconstruction (p. 722), W.E.B. DuBois writes, “One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over.” Martin Luther King Jr. addressed evil not only as a political leader but also as a theologian. In a philosophy of religion course, he began a paper: “The problem of evil has always been the most baffling problem facing the theist. … Why do the innocent suffer? How account for the endless chain of moral and physical evils? These are questions which no serious minded religionist can overlook. Evil is a reality.”

Last year, I interviewed a European-American left-radical leader with evangelical roots who used the word “satanic” to describe our times. It struck me that most secular people who had exactly the same policy agenda would shun that word.

No one doubts that some people believe and do very bad things. One view is that bad and good lie on a continuum, and we must always strive to move up that scale. “Evil” is just a word for the worst region of the continuum. A different view is that some actions and ideas belong in a whole category of their own. They require extirpation, not amelioration. That’s a theory that takes evil seriously as such.

There’s also a debate about whether evil has depth. Is it the mere negation of altruism and a failure to think carefully–for instance, a failure to see things from a different perspective? This was Arendt’s conclusion in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Or is evil an active malevolence, compatible with high degrees of empathy, self-sacrifice and imagination? Can an evil person or idea be impressive?

I wrote “evil person or idea,” but it’s attractive to say only actions are evil; people are not, and perhaps ideas aren’t either. But I’m not sure about that. Some people and some ideas smoke of evil.

Then there’s a debate about its prevalence. In Calvinism and some kinds of Gnosticism, evil is omnipresent. In more optimistic theologies and philosophies, it is exceptional. One might hold that evil is common in some societies but rare in others.

Finally, to what extent should our political systems aim to prevent and extirpate evil? The obvious answer seems to be “to the greatest extent possible!” But then we’d need strong safeguards on evil behavior that can also frustrate positive change. Judith Shklar wrote, “somewhere someone is being tortured right now.” Her “liberalism of fear” was “a response to these undeniable actualities, and it therefore concentrate[d] on damage control.” Her liberalism was “entirely nonutopian,” informed by memory and not hope.  In practical terms, it was mostly about limiting governmental power.

One could argue that the main sources of evil lie in culture and the market; then an expansive government could be a necessary counterweight to evil. However, you won’t find much discussion of evil in the standard justifications of extensive government, such as Rawls’ Theory of Justice. Except in the anodyne phrase “lesser of two evils,” the word “evil” appears only in the context of conscientious refusal to serve in the military. Rawls notes that a soldier may face “hazards” (perhaps moral hazards as well as literal ones); “but in a well ordered society anyway, these evils arise externally, that is, from unjustified attacks from the outside.” Rawls is confident that a well-ordered society can be evil-free. We may have to fight Nazis, but we won’t harbor any. That’s a pretty strong assumption.

*Quoted in Peter Dews, “Disenchantment and the Persistence of Evil: Habermas, Jonas, Badiou,” in Alan D. Schrift, ed., Modernity and the Problem of Evil, Indiana University Press, 2005, p. 51.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.