Defining Evil in The Wake Of 9/11
Looking for Guideposts In Lisbon's Earthquake, Fires and Floods of 1755
By Edward Rothstein
It seems all too familiar: on a fall morning in a major city, civilization is disrupted. In less than a half-hour, buildings are destroyed, thousands are killed, the sky turns dark with dust. Philosophers and religious leaders invoke the concept of evil. Some blame the sinful behavior of the citizenry and cite divine retribution; others believe that civil society will soon restore itself.
But the subject of evil is now becoming the focus of unusual attention. New books are out about fundamentalism and evil, like "When Religion Becomes Evil," by Charles Kimball (Harper San Francisco), and about the psychology of evil, as in "Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing," by James Waller (Oxford University Press). In "Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation" (Polity Press), Richard J. Bernstein, a philosopher at the New School University, begins by quoting Hannah Arendt, who declared in 1945, "The problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe."
But Arendt's prediction was right for only a short time. Despite all the horrors of the 20th century. Including the Gulag, the Cambodian killing fields and the "ethinc cleansing" in the Balkans, the "problem of evil" began to seem somewhat quaint. Mr. Berstein writes, "It is almost as if the language of evil has been dropped from contemporary moral and ethical discourse."
In fact, when the word evil was used by President Bush to describe the terrorist attacks, it was partly because it was an anachronistic term, premodern in its force. He seemed deliberately to seek an antique religious aura, asserting the existence of moral absolutes in an era that doubted them.
Ms. Neiman is too subtle a reader of Kant to believe that evil is that simple, but it is also, she argues, so important that much of Western philosophy is an attempt to comprehend it. We apply the concept, after all, when we cannot make sense of an horrific event. Evil is not just an ethical violation; it is an "epistemological" violation she writes; it disrupts and challenges our interpretations of the world.
In the premodern era, Ms. Neiman explains, evil referred as much to natural catastrophes as to willful acts. One of the tasks of philosophy and religion was to interpret such cataclysms. So suffering became a result of original sin. A catastrophe was divine punishment. Then, in the 17th century, Leibniz invented the term theodicy to describe his defense of a God accused of creating an evil world; the word later came to mean an attempt to account for evil itself. Leibniz argued that we really live in the best of all possible worlds. Bad things seem to happen to good people because we lack God's omniscience.
But in Ms. Neiman's account, the earthquake in Lisbon disrupted all that. The world was becoming more scientifically intelligible, and a modern economy was developing. So when disaster struck, the old theodicy was inadequate. The earthquake caused philosophical trauma. Kant wrote about it. Voltaire and Rousseau argued over it. Gradually, Ms. Neiman says, the idea of a catastrophe being a "natural evil" disappeared; its divorce from the notion of "moral evil" became "part of the meaning of modernity."
Explaining moral evil in a world of autonomous actors while still maintaining faith in Providence was no easy task, and Ms. Neiman eloquently outlines the attempts. In the 18th century, Rousseau "replaced theology with history," she argues, by suggesting that evil and suffering were the results not of original sin but of error and misguided civilization. Later, Hegel turned history into theodicy by explaining all suffering and evil as unavoidable elements of an evolutionary process. Marx responded with an economic theodicy - an account of societies and their evils - complete with prescriptions for healing suffering. Freud turned inward, tracing evil and suffering to thwarted infantile desires and to civilization's inevitable discontents.
These varied theodicies tried to account for evil, to make it comprehensible, at times even to dismiss it. Ms. Neiman seems to suggest that by the first part of the 20th century, "moral evil," like "natural evil" before it, had come to seem almost a banal idea, little more than another element of the natural world or a reflection of psychology or economics.
But then came yet another trauma, one that was as disruptive to the 20th century as Lisbon was to the 18th: Auschwitz. Only this time, Ms. Neiman argues, it undermined the very possibility of constructing a theodicy. "The problem of evil began by trying to penetrate God's intentions," she writes. "Now it appears we cannot make sense of our own."
More than 50 years later, where are we? Oddly, when Ms. Neiman comes to the events of 9/11, she seems ill at ease. She says that they leave a "sense of conceptual helplessness." In her discussion, two notions of evil seem to confront each other: the post-Auschwitz and the pre-Lisbon. This is a small part of the book, but it may be more important than Ms. Neiman realizes.
She argues that the attacks did not reflect new forms of evil; in fact they were "old fashioned" in their elemental power. They harked back to the Lisbon earthquake, seeming like a "natural evil" in their swift horror. "Crude forms of theodicy" even developed as a result, including at least one assertion that the attacks were the consequences of American sin.
Yet despite her recognition of pre-Lisbon evil, she is astonishingly condescending to those who immediately called the acts evil; she ascribes to those unnamed figures a "simple and demonic" view of evil, one encouraged by watching "old westerns."
On the other side, she describes those with supposedly more sophisticated views, influenced "less by Hollywood than by Chile and Vietnam and Auschwitz and Cambodia."
"We have learned," she writes (for she includes herself), to see evil in the acts of governments and to see "starvation furthered by corporate interests." In other words, more sophisticated people have learned to discover evils that they feel have been perpetrated by the West.
Yet she is palpably uncomfortable with the responses of this second group, for their post-Auschwitz view of Western evil has led them to a "paralyzed moral reaction" to Sept. 11, as if they couldn't condemn one evil because they believed in another, as if by calling the attacks evil, they would be lending support to "those with fewer scruples." This view of the attacks, she writes, "appeared to relativize them" and "risked a first step toward making them justifiable." She insists that the attacks be forthrightly described as evil - which wouldn't preclude condemning other evils as well.
In much of this analysis, she has accurately described an intellectual debate that continues. But her condescension toward those who first condemned the acts as evil and her denigration of their scruples don't seem to fit with her conclusion: that these people were actually correct. She remains uneasy in her convictions and in the company she must keep.
But the opposing view, with its mentions of Vietnam and "corporate interests" can spur unease in other ways. These evils - if evils they are - are not instantly perceived but are judged evil according to particular interpretations and political theories. But aren't these theories also theodicies, some with their own "simple and demonic" views of evil? Suffering is explained by material forces latent in economics and power politics. Even 9/11 is treated a consequence of more fundamental evils: those created by imperialism and Western power.
There is, then, good reason for Ms. Neiman's discomfort, for in many ways the experience of Sept. 11 does resemble Lisbon. It seems to challenge regnant theodicies. Simply applying the label evil leaves the event without a modern context; it does not show how that evil is to be understood. But the supposedly more sophisticated post-Auschwitz view is also a problem. The terrorists' motivations and beliefs may not be easily reduced to familiar notions of "root causes."
So both the pro-Lisbon and the post-Auschwitz view of evil seem unstable. Interpretations are in dispute. This is an almost classic response to the experience of evil; and in its wake, new theodicies may one day start to replace the old.
Published in: New York Times, 5 October 2002