A Philosophy of Evil

Glen Newey writes:

Evil can prove elusive, prompting resort to, among other things, palliative taxonomy. The Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen’s book on the philosophy of evil follows hard on the heels of his previous three works on the philosophies of fashion, fear and boredom. Suppose I do something that would be commonly regarded as evil, such as torturing a baby, or a winsome furry animal. Svendsen contends that my act must fit one of four possibilities. I do evil: just because it is evil (when the evil is said by Svendsen to be ‘demonic’); in service of a goal, perhaps but not necessarily a greater good, knowing my actions to be evil (‘instrumental’); having mistaken it for something good (‘idealistic’); or from sheer brainlessness (‘stupid’) – as exemplified, Svendsen thinks, by Adolf Eichmann. Clearly this is not an analysis, if that involves an attempt to explain what evil is. The taxonomy structures the book, even though it presupposes that an understanding of evil is already in place. And this is part of the problem. For Svendsen’s typology of evil to work, one must be able to identify evil acts independently of the mental states that mark off his types of evil actor. Evil has to be treated as an out-there phenomenon, a kind of malignant electromagnetism.

(LRB 23 September 2010)