What is evil? The politics of morality

Saturday 29 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Courtyard Gallery

The hurried and secretive disposal of the body of Osama bin Laden after he was killed by US special forces in May was explained on strategic grounds, but there was an unmistakeable sense of fear, even superstition, attached to the operation. It was as if the corpse of the man who had personified evil in the Western imagination for a decade threatened to leak malice into the atmosphere. Certainly this kind of thinking seemed to be at play in England in 1996 when the ‘house of horror’ of child murderers Fred and Rosemary West was demolished and its rubble ground up so no traces remained. This process of ‘expunging the sense of evil linked to the place’, as the BBC put it, was repeated in 2004 with the home of Soham murderer Ian Huntley. Evil is a word applied not just to houses and child murderers though. It is regularly applied to countries (the ‘Axis of Evil’), religions (Catholicism, Islam), ideas (racism, homophobia) and the people who hold them (AIDS, Holocaust and climate-change ‘deniers’). Not to mention greedy and self-interested bankers. Why is a word so redolent of medieval thought, of demons and Inquisitions, a word one might think was killed off by the Enlightenment, so current today?

Terry Eagleton has described evil today as a backlash against the blandness of societies in which nothing seems to mean anything; where much may be permitted in our behaviour but there is little moral authority. The nihilism of young gunmen and suicide bombers is born of a desperate frustration to show ‘absolute acts are possible even in a world of moral relativism’. For Eagleton, real evil is complete disinterest: it has no point; is beyond reason; unspeakable. For Simon Baron-Cohen, meanwhile, true cruelty lies at one far end of a scientifically graspable ‘spectrum of empathy’; evil might be defined as ‘zero empathy’. Is evil actually a source of certainty in a fearful and uneasy world? What Slavoj Žižek has called ‘the fashionable elevation of the Holocaust into an untouchable transcendent Evil’ is one example of how evil can grant us a moral mooring. At least we know it was Wrong. The ideology of evil flattens out complexity: it is commonplace to equate Stalin and Hitler as evil twins; Auschwitz and Rwanda were equally evil. Do we need to know some things are Wrong so we can be Right?

Perhaps Enlightenment thinkers were naïve to try to submit the world to rational explanation rather than moral condemnation. Have things gone so far that we now need the vocabulary of saint and sinner, the blessed and the damned, to make sense of the world? If so, what happens to those who disagree? Will dissent from modern social norms be branded heresy? After all, there can be no argument for tolerating Evil. Have we become less rational, or is Evil a real force abroad in the world?

Listen to session audio:


Professor Simon Baron-Cohen
director, Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge; author, Zero Degrees of Empathy

Professor David Jones
director, Anscombe Bioethics Centre; co-editor, Chimera's Children: Ethical, Philosophical and Religious Perspectives on Human-Nonhuman Experimentation

Kenan Malik
writer and broadcaster; author, The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics and From Fatwa to Jihad

Mark Vernon
journalist; author, God: all that matters and The Big Questions: God

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Produced by
Angus Kennedy convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination
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