Just because we have trouble defining “evil” doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We have trouble defining a lot of things, including pornography, yet we have no doubt that they exist: we may disagree on this or that instance, but some instances almost all of us agree upon.
“Evil” has been much in the air, literally and conceptually, much in the recent past, and especially since 9/11/01: President Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” the relativist snurfling at the “simplicity” of this characterization. Popular culture has zeroed in on evil with the Hannibal Lecter books and films, the Lord of the Ring and Harry Potter series, even in parody form with “Dr. Evil” from the Austin Powers series.
There is a religious element to the discussion, with atheists, agnostics, and half-believers wishing to supress any notions of “absolute” good or evil, carrying with them supernatural baggage. And of course religious absolutism without the attendant values of tolerance and respect for the beliefs of others leads to the kind of fanaticism that drives Islamist hatred and leads us to be labeled the “Great Satan.”
Chritopher Hitchens addresses the concept of evil in his latest Slate column:
- There is probably no easier way to beckon a smirk to the lips of a liberal intellectual than to mention President Bush’s invocation of the notion of “evil.” Such simple-mindedness! What better proof of a “cowboy” presidency than this crass resort to the language of good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats? Doesn’t everybody know that there are shades and nuances and subtleties to be considered, in which moral absolutism is of no help?
….When confronted with the unblinking, conscienceless person we now say that he is a “psychopath,” incapable of conceiving an interest other than his own and perhaps genuinely indifferent to the well-being of others.
This diagnosis is certainly an advance on the idea of demonic possession or original sin. But not all psychopaths are the same. Some, rather than being simply indifferent to the well-being of others, have an urgent need to make others feel agony and humiliation. Still others will press this need to the point where it endangers their own self-interest—just as a pathological liar is one who utters apparently motiveless falsehoods even when they can do him no possible good. Thus, we have to postulate the existence of human behavior that is simultaneously sadistic and self-destructive. We would not have much difficulty in describing the consequences of such behavior as evil. “It was an evil day when …” “The evil outcome of this conduct was …” Why, then, is there any problem about ascribing these qualities to the perpetrator?
….Like everything else, including moral relativism, this would be subjective. Probably no journalist in the current discourse has had more fun denouncing Bush as a reactionary simpleton than Robert Fisk of the London Independent. His dispatches have an almost Delphic stature among those who decry American “double standards.” Yet I still have my copy of the article he wrote from Kuwait City soon after the expulsion of Saddam’s forces. He described as best he could the contents of certain cellars and improvised lock-ups and the randomness of the carnage and destruction and waste (remember that Saddam blew up the Kuwaiti oilfields when he had already surrendered control of them), but there was an X-factor in the scene that he could smell or taste rather than summarize. “Something evil,” he wrote, “has happened here.” I think I agree with him that we do indeed need a word for it, and that this is the best negative superlative that we possess.