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:

 

Speakers
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

Chair:
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
Recommended readings
Angels: a very short introduction

What are angels? Where were they first encountered? Can we distinguish angels from gods, fairies, ghosts, and aliens? And why do they remain so popular? And what about demons?

David Albert Jones, Oxford University Press, 27 October 2011

Before Hitler, Who Was the Stand-In for Pure Evil?

Today, the Führer is universally recognized as the embodiment of evil and the most convenient example of a truly terrible human being. Before World War II, who was the rhetorical worst person in history?

Brian Palmer, Slate, 4 October 2011

Morality and the Left

‘Morality is as important to the left as it is to the right, though for very different reasons’. It is important to the left because ‘There is no possibility of a political or economic vision of a different society without a moral vision too.’

Kenan Malik, Pandaemonium, 4 October 2011

The End of Evil?

Neuroscientists suggest there is no such thing. Are they right?

Ron Rosenbaum, Slate, 30 September 2011

Message to protesters: Basildon is not Bosnia

The invasion of Dale Farm by everyone from the UN to Amnesty to Fergal bloody Keane shows how desperate activists are for a Bosnia replay.

Brendan O'Neill, spiked, 20 September 2011

Evildoers and Us

The problem of evil is one of our oldest intellectual conundrums.

Alan Wolfe, Chronicle Review, 11 September 2011

A Book In Progress [Part 5]: good and evil

Chapter Five of the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought explores the idea of evil within monotheistic religion. It opens with the Book of Job, in my eyes the most eloquent book in the Bible, and the one that gets to the heart of the problem of evil for a faith that believes in a omnipotent, omniscient, totally benevolent God: how could such a God allow the righteous and the innocent to suffer?

Kenan Malik, Pandaemonium, 19 June 2011

Zero Degrees of Empathy: a new theory of human cruelty

Simon Baron-Cohen, expert in autism and developmental psychopathology, has always wanted to isolate and understand the factors that cause people to treat others as if they were mere objects. In this book he proposes a radical shift, turning the focus away from evil and on to the central factor, empathy. Unlike the concept of evil, he argues, empathy has real explanatory power.

Simon Baron-Cohen, Allen Lane, 7 April 2011

On Evil

For many enlightened, liberal-minded thinkers today, and for most on the political left, evil is an outmoded concept. It smacks too much of absolute judgements and metaphysical certainties to suit the modern age. In this witty, accessible study, the prominent Marxist thinker Terry Eagleton launches a surprising defence of the reality of evil, drawing on literary, theological, and psychoanalytic sources to suggest that evil, no mere medieval artefact, is a real phenomenon with palpable force in our contemporary world.

Terry Eagleton, Yale University Press, 1 April 2011

A new solution to the problem of evil?

A psychological paper which claims to explain the religious account of evil is troublingly simplistic

Mark Vernon, Guardian Comment is free, 11 June 2010

What is the point of evil?

If Terry Eagleton is right that evil is literally, supremely pointless, and also reassuringly rare in a world full of human purpose, then why are we discovering it everywhere we look?

Angus Kennedy, spiked, 26 March 2010

Engineering the future: cautionary tale or utopia?

"The energy, verve and enthusiasm at The Battle of Ideas filled me with hope. Coming from India where so many people still lack the basic necessities that make human life worth living, it was heartening to see basic issues of equity and justice debated with such passion and fervour."
George Thomas, orthopaedic surgeon; editor, Indian Journal of Medical Ethics

follow the Academy of Ideas