The Meaning of “Evil”
July 26, 2012
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In The New Yorker. The piece draws a great deal from the work of Susan Neiman (director of the Einstein Forum, Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard). It also references Peter Dews (Essex) and Terry Eagleton (English, Lancaster).
The danger of a word like “evil” is that it is absolute. The “intense semantic charge” of the word “evil,” Peter Dews writes, “lends itself to exploitation” by whoever uses it. To play the “evil” card is to cut off all debate, and to say that any effort toward rehabilitation or reintegration wouldn’t be worth the risk or heartache. The mark of “evil” demands permanent banishment or death, and we call perpetrators “evil” to relieve the guilt we might feel in applying such sanctions. And yet to try to explain evil, as with brian scans or social conditions, smacks intolerably of absolving it. It suggests that evil is part of the natural order of things, a conclusion that our sense of trust in the world yearns to reject.