Naming Evil, Judging Evil

Naming Evil, Judging Evil

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Naming Evil, Judging Evil by Ruth W. Grant

Is it more dangerous to call something evil or not to?  This fundamental question deeply divides those who fear that the term oversimplifies grave problems and those who worry that, to effectively address such issues as terrorism and genocide, we must first acknowledge them as evil. Recognizing that the way we approach this dilemma can significantly affect both the harm we suffer and the suffering we inflict, a distinguished group of contributors engages in the debate with this series of timely and original essays.

Drawing on Western conceptions of evil from the Middle Ages to the present,  these pieces demonstrate that, while it may not be possible to definitively settle moral questions, we are still able—and in fact are obligated—to make moral arguments and judgments. Using a wide variety of approaches, the authors raise tough questions: Why is so much evil perpetrated in the name of good?  Could evil ever be eradicated? How can liberal democratic politics help us strike a balance between the need to pass judgment and the need to remain tolerant? Their insightful answers exemplify how the sometimes rarefied worlds of political theory, philosophy, theology, and history can illuminate pressing contemporary concerns.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226306742
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/15/2008
Series: Center for American Places - Center Books on American Places Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 232
File size: 377 KB

About the Author

Ruth W. Grant is professor of political science and philosophy at Duke University and a senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. She is the author of John Locke’s Liberalism and Hypocrisy and Integrity, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

Naming Evil Judging Evil

The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2006

The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-30673-5

Chapter One Michael Allen Gillespie

Where Did All the Evils Go?

From a fading photo on the title page of Ron Rosenbaum's recent book, Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, a small child peers out at us. Who is this child? A victim of the Holocaust? An image of all that was lost? Or perhaps a shattered survivor who lived on haunted by the ghosts of those who died? No, it is something worse, a photo of baby Adolf, as innocent as any child who has "not yet bitten of the apple." There is no hair combed carefully into place, no steely glint in his eye, no narrow mustache above an unsmiling lip, no arm extended in salute, and no indication of future deeds so horrible as to beggar the imagination. Just a small child, filled with all the promise that youth has to offer. The question at the heart of the book is captured in this photo. It is a question posed not merely by the victims of the Holocaust or the millions killed in Hitler's war, but by our very humanity. Is there a humanly comprehensible path from that small child to the gray and brooding figure searing his course across our history? And if there is, how can we ever use the word "humane" again? How can we look at ourselves in the mirror and not wonder if that unspeakable something that was in him is not also in us?

Rosenbaum's personal search takes him not only to piles of crumbling newspapers and letters, to distant towns and lost places in all corners of Europe, Israel, and North America, but also into the pages and the living rooms of nearly all the world's most famous Hitler scholars. What he discovers there is quite disturbing. Although they are all ardent foes of Hitler and everything he stood for, they fundamentally disagree about his moral character. For some, such as Emile Fackenheim, Hitler is evil incarnate, utterly inhuman, the epitome of absolute evil. In stark contrast, others such as H. R. Trevor-Roper (author of The Last Days of Hitler), argue not only that he was not evil but that he was in fact an idealist, horribly misguided, to be sure, but an idealist nonetheless, who sought to do good. There was no evil will at work in Hitler, they maintain, only (terribly) faulty reasoning. There are some, such as Robert Waite, who try to steer a middle course between these two extremes, but this proves difficult, for while they describe a path from here to there, they are almost all forced to admit that at some point that path is profoundly ruptured, that it passes through an unfathomable abyss, an anomaly of such magnitude that it is difficult to say how the human being who entered it is related to the inhuman being who comes out the other side.

If we accept Rosenbaum's account, we seem compelled to choose between one of two impossible alternatives: either Hitler was not evil or Hitler was not human. This dilemma is particularly troubling because for many years Hitler has been the only absolute in our relativistic moral universe, the one point on our moral map that always flashed "Forbidden! Do not enter here!" And our certainty of his evil has been just about the only thing that has given us the resolve to defend the cause of humanity. Apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and the like evoke not merely disapprobation but action because, at some level, we see in them the reappearance of that malignant spirit we imagine to have possessed Hitler. If we doubt that Hitler was evil, how can we sustain any notion of evil or find any ground for moral judgment or action? And if we are left with only silence in the face of this question, how can we not conclude that we are lost on an infinite moral sea, beyond good and evil?

Nietzsche believed that such a fate was inevitable, for the death of God and the collapse of everything built upon that God were already well underway, even if most Europeans had not yet recognized that fact. He was equally convinced that the consequence of this "greatest event" would be the collapse of European morality, centuries of brutal war, and the advent of a world in which everything is permitted. Was he right? Is this the source of the difficulty we face when we consider the question of evil? Are we at heart already entertaining that "uncanniest of all guests," nihilism? While it is tempting to leap to such a conclusion, it might behoove us to ask a preliminary question, not whether the absence of a point of absolute evil on our moral map is the result of a creeping atheism and nihilism, but how it came about that all the lesser points of evil were effaced. Might our difficulty in coming to terms with the possibility of "radical" or "ultimate" evil not be connected to our difficulty in believing in evil in all of its lesser forms?

The existence and variety of evil was certainly not a question for the High Middle Ages. Aquinas and Dante, for example, knew what evil was, described its forms and degrees, and laid out the appropriate punishments and remediations. Judas, the medieval moral equivalent of Hitler, was in this way clearly connected to the baby who, according to Augustine, concupiscently sucked at its mother's breast. For these thinkers, there is no problem with how we get from the child to the monster. Medieval Christianity had a moral map that was complex, rooted in reason and revelation, reflected in civil and canon law, and embedded in creation. Yet by the middle of the seventeenth century, the points on this map had largely been erased. Indeed, Descartes and Hobbes, the two great pillars of modern thought, proclaimed that good is what pleases me and evil what causes me pain or opposes my will. Where, then, did all the evils go?

This is the question I address in this essay. I believe that the answer helps to explain the mysterious ambiguity of evil in modern times. In what follows, I argue that the answer to this question lies in the theological and philosophical transformations that mark the passage from the late medieval to the early modern world. Descartes and Hobbes are not the source of this change. They articulate a radically subjective, quasi-utilitarian view of morality. However, they do so not because they clearly prefer it but because the alternative they see in front of them is so much worse. They turn away from a notion of evil so vast and a notion of good so compelling that it had become easy on moral grounds to justify not merely casuistic equivocation but the slaughter of whole populations. To understand how morality came to this pass and why our moral map has become so useless to us, we thus need to examine not Nietzsche, or even Descartes and Hobbes, but the tremendous theological and moral transformation of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. In doing so, I believe we can see that our inability to sustain a notion of evil arises not from the death of God but from the proclamation of his omnipotence, thus not from atheism but from a particular kind of theism.

The Scholastic Idea of Evil

From its inception, Christianity was deeply concerned with questions of evil. This concern crystallized in two questions that have remained central to the Christian tradition. Where did evil come from, and what can be done about it? If the world and everything in it were created by God, was God the source of evil, as the Manicheans and others argued, or was evil the result of Adam's disobedience, a sinful turning away from God, as Augustine maintained? This question was bound up with the role of Christ and his sacrifice. Was he one with God or was he only the highest of the creatures and therefore closer to human beings, as Arius suggested? What was the meaning of his life and death? Does morality consist in emulating his example or in praying for his assistance? This question was also bound up with a further question: can human beings overcome sin on their own or are they finally dependent on divine grace? The answer to this question too turns on the meaning of Christ's life and death. Did his sacrifice wipe away sin and restore human beings to their prelapsarian state, or did it only make evident the power of God to graciously save those whom he had already chosen? Pelagius argued that humans have the capacity to act virtuously and secure salvation through their own efforts, while Augustine maintained that grace was decisive.

The history of Christianity is characterized by a series of attempts to answer these questions while avoiding the extremes of Manicheanism, which sees God as the source not merely of all good but also of all evil, and Pelagianism, which attributes to man the power to win salvation by his own powers and without grace. In seeking such answers, Christianity has repeatedly struggled with the question of Christ's dual nature. The contention among Christian fathers over this question had a great deal to do with the extreme difficulty of reconciling divine omnipotence and divine humanity. In attempting to do so they drew heavily on the philosophical teachings of the ancient world and particularly the work of the neo-Platonists, and while the Platonic notion of participation, for example, gave them some purchase on answers to these questions, it also opened up a whole host of other problems that were difficult to reconcile with scripture.

Scholasticism, which arose in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, tried to develop a more consistent theology for Christianity, drawing on an Aristotelianism that had recently come to Europe through Islamic scholars such as Averroës. Christians had known of Aristotle's work through Boethius, but the Aristotle that came to Christianity through Islam played a new and important role. At its core, scholasticism was an attempt to reconcile reason and revelation, to show that Aristotelian rationalism was compatible with the biblical notion of divine omnipotence. This task was not easy, for the two traditions differed in their understanding of theology, cosmology, and anthropology. The Aristotelian notion of a demiourgos as an autonomous and indifferent "thinking of thinking" bears little resemblance to the notion of a wrathful God in the Old Testament or the notion of a more merciful God in the New Testament, both of whom take an active interest in human affairs. The Aristotelian notion of the eternity of the world also stands in sharp contrast to the relatively recent Creation and looming destruction of the world envisioned by Christianity. Finally, while Aristotle suggested that an ethical life could be achieved for all but the most brutish human beings by rational laws and the proper habituation of desire, Christianity believed that all human beings were tainted by an original sin that only Christ's sacrifice could overcome. These differences were exacerbated not merely by Aristotle's paganism but by the fact that his writings came to Europe through an Islam that was both a theological and a military threat to Christendom.

Despite these difficulties and suspicions, Aristotle offered a coherent means for coming to terms with a world that showed no signs of ending any time soon. We see this in the scholastic treatment of metaphysica generalis (i.e., ontology and logic). God may have created the world out of nothing by means of his absolute power, but in doing so his will was guided by his reason. What is ontologically real are not the individual things but species or universals that inform these things. This was the scholastic doctrine of realism. Within this context, the world can be understood by means of a syllogistic logic that describes the relationship between these universals. The mutuality of divine reason and divine will thus makes the connection of Christianity and pagan philosophy a possibility. This is even more evident in scholasticism's metaphysica specialis (theology, cosmology, and anthropology). Theologically, we have access to God not merely through revelation but also (at least analogically) through our reason. There is thus not merely revealed theology but also natural theology. Cosmologically, we can understand the world as a rationally ordered whole. Everything has its natural place and course, moving toward the actualization of its intrinsic rational essence or end. The meaning and purpose of things is thus a reflection of the beneficent action of the divine will guided by divine reason. Anthropologically, human beings are creatures created in God's own image as rational animals. As such, they seek the good, that is, they seek to realize their potential, to be human in an essential way. Unfortunately, each of them is also a child of Adam and his sin. This sin, which damaged (though it did not destroy) human reason, makes it difficult for humans to find their way. God, however, sent Christ to redeem them from their sins. This God achieves by Christ's sacrifice but also by the continuing action of the Holy Spirit that was imparted to the Apostles and embodied in the Church. The Church is thus God's agent on earth, distributing sacraments and performing the rites necessary for salvation. Moreover, it is the teacher of morality and the overseer of the secular realm in which laws are established to further direct people toward the good.

Creation is good, and evil therefore cannot be a part of it. It is nothing. This does not mean, however, that it is an illusion. Rather, evil is not and cannot be a real substance, that is, it cannot be a universal. Evil comes about not because God wills it but because individual human beings at times seek not their natural and supernatural end but rather their own momentary individual advantage. Evil is ontologically an accident in an Aristotelian sense, but an accident that arises inevitably out of human individuality. Original sin is bound up with our finitude and the passions that inevitably accompany it. These passions are rooted in a self-love that obscures our universal nature and end. While humans are tainted by sin, they are not totally blinded by it. Indeed, even in their fallen state they are sometimes moved by charitable impulses that, if properly habituated, can impel them toward virtue and goodness.

Evil can be measured by the extent to which individual will is directed toward or away from reason and thus toward or away from God. We see this magnificently portrayed in Dante's Divine Comedy. The most heinous evil is the result of turning against God or against the moral order as a whole. Thus, Judas, who betrayed Christ, and Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed Caesar (the founder of the universal empire), are in the lowest circle of hell, caught in the mouths of Satan. Such men can never love God and consequently cannot be saved. Their sins are mortal, not venial. Venial sins are typically evil directed against another person or his property that do not necessarily separate one from God. They thus do not merit eternal damnation, but they do require remediation, both on earth and in purgatory. The gravity of the sin and the harshness of its punishment are thus commensurate with the excellence of the good that it rejects or damages.

Insofar as it is possible to classify evil, to recognize its severity, and to determine what kind of disorder it is, it is possible to develop remedies to lessen its occurrence and to redeem those who have sinned. Indeed, it is an obligation of Christian charity to do so. The principal question for scholasticism thus becomes not the nature, variety, and degree of evil but what is needed to overcome it, in particular, how much the individual can do on his own, how much depends on grace, and how much falls to the Church. Good and evil are not a question-the moral laws are written in nature and manifest to human reason. They are also spelled out in Scripture and in the practices of the Church. Reason, revelation, and nature all teach a single lesson that is reinforced and enjoined by secular and canon law.

This scholastic view avoids both Manicheanism and Pelagianism. Evil does not come from God but from human beings. It is a disorder in their nature that otherwise seeks God and the good. Moreover, while individuals on their own cannot wholly overcome it, they have an obligation to do what they can. Central to the entire process is the Church, which plays a decisive role in bringing people back to their rational ends.


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Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


Alasdair MacIntyre



Part 1: Speaking About Evil

Chapter 1 Where Did All the Evils Go?

Michael Allen  Gillespie

Chapter 2 Seeing Darkness, Hearing Silence: Augustine’s Account of Evil

Stanley Hauerwas

Chapter 3 The Rousseauan Revolution and the Problem of Evil

Ruth W. Grant

Chapter 4 Inequality and the Problem of Evil
Nannerl O. Keohane

Part 2: Making Judgments, Passing Judgment, Taking a Stand, Biting Your Tongue

Chapter 5 The Butler Did It

J. Peter Euben

Chapter 6 Evil and the Morality of Conviction

David Wong

Chapter 7 Combining Clarity and Complexity: A Layered Approach to Cross-Cultural Ethics

Elizabeth Kiss

Chapter 8 Liberal Dilemmas and Moral Judgment

Malachi Hacohen

Chapter 9 Between Bigotry and Nihilism: Moral Judgment in Pluralist Democracies

Thomas A. Spragens, Jr.



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