On the Reality of Evil

Posted By January 6, 2006 No Comments

Hitler. There, I said it right away. So the internet rule against resorting to Hitler analogies in an argument won’t apply to me because I’m starting with one instead. Adolf Hitler proves there is, at least sometimes, evil in the world. Raw, howling evil. Worse than 10 werewolves.

It’s important to be clear and direct on this point because if you say the word ‘evil’ while discussing foreign policy you are liable to be scoffed at as not merely wrong but vulgar. This reaction is distinctly unhelpful, but unfortunately very common.

The loudest scoffing comes from post-modern leftists who deny there is such a thing as evil. But there is also quiet snickering from Realpolitik right-wingers, who might well agree that evil exists but deny that the concept has legitimate application in foreign affairs. A third kind of bitter laughter comes from those who think “George Bush is the real war criminal” but their implicit commitment to the notion that war crimes are evil-like objects allows me, for the purposes of this article, to declare that Q.E.D. With those people we can have a useful argument if, but only if, we first clear away the first two objections.

Let us start with the postmodernists, since obviously we should not be talking about evil in foreign policy if there is in principle no such thing as evil. Here we are not primarily quarrelling about diplomacy. Instead, we are curtly summarizing a vast philosophical debate. As we must, not only for its theoretical importance but because (an easily testable hypothesis) calling things evil, in domestic or foreign affairs, provokes scorn and outrage not for mislabelling things but for using the label at all.

Most non-judgemental people are also sanctimonious foes of racism, sexism and homophobia, plus drugs, tobacco, obesity, and any number of other apparently victimless vices. Their curious mixture of high dudgeon and refusal to use blunt language results in peculiar verbal acrobatics like a quaint, even pathetic wielding of the anodyne ‘inappropriate’ where ‘depraved’ or ‘wicked’ would be far more natural. But it is not entirely illogical.

There are two essentially materialist grounds for denying the validity of ‘evil’ as a concept. First is the ‘behaviourist’ argument that anyone knowing the position and velocity of each particle at the time of the Big Bang could predict the electrical activity in our brains now. Even if no one could in fact know these things, all our thoughts and actions are predetermined and inevitable including the illusion that we make choices so logically there is no possibility of human agency and no good actions or bad ones. There is something peculiar about the vehemence with which behaviourists insist they are mere spectators at the puppet-show of their own existence, but presumably it’s predetermined too.

The second, ‘therapeutic’ type of materialist shares with traditional moralists the belief that no one could really understand good yet do evil. But where traditionalists blame a disordered will that refuses to understand good, therapists blame a disordered understanding that cannot do so, and insist that some form of therapy, psychological or pharmaceutical, could in principle make all wrongdoers benign whether or not we can find and administer such therapy in practice. There is something peculiar about the outrage they exhibit when wronged, but presumably it’s curable as well.

It’s a tangled web. But at the risk of reducing a vast library of philosophical speculation to ashes, I say with C.S. Lewis that empirically it is not possible to live according to such beliefs nor even to hold them. Look inside your own head, he insists, and you will find belief in right and wrong there as an inescapable empirical fact: Even the most devoted relativist does not merely hope I will not terminate our debate by shooting him, he firmly believes I should not.

The argument is not necessarily religious. People like Lewis and J. Budziszewski argue not from theology to moral law but the other way around. It is enough to mention pedophile rape-murder to prove that evil exists, whatever you proceed to make of it. Here I stand on the basic question of evil; I can do no other. And neither can you. Certain things are simply, radically and deeply wrong whether or not there is a God. In short, they are evil. And genocide is among them.

To establish that evil exists does not resolve the question of what it includes nor what we are to do about it. This problem is complex, to put it mildly, especially when we turn our attention to the scoffing of the Realpolitikers who consider it naïve to import moralistic concepts into diplomacy.

Their objection is not on the face of it unreasonable. It is perfectly possible for a concept to be legitimate and important in some areas of life without being applicable in others. You can’t run a draw play [a deceptive advance in Rugby – ed.] in the kitchen. And while it is possible to put poison in the punch bowl, there is no more place for an index entry ‘Evil’ in a cookbook than for ‘Flour, sifting’ in a work of metaphysics. Moreover, most of those traditionally considered idealists or moralists in international affairs, from Woodrow Wilson to Jimmy Carter, have usually made an appalling hash of things. Not always; Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire then promptly demolished it. And the fact that a concept does not necessarily apply is not the same as it necessarily not applying. We need to weigh the Realpolitikers’ specific objection and see if we cannot deal with it.

A Nixonian Realpolitiker shudders at the use of moralistic language in foreign policy on the grounds that whatever our purposes, instrumentally there are only state interests defended well or badly. Another nation threatens us because it is powerful not because it is evil. If we slide into error on this point it distorts our analysis and undermines our effectiveness even if we are fighting communism or Nazism as best we can because, teleologically, it is evil.

Aside from postmodern Realpolitikers (if any such exist), the real objection here is that even if some regimes have worse motives than others, it does not affect how they pursue the elements of power nor the nature of those elements. As a professor of mine observed, the October Revolution did not cause Russia to fly to South America, so Lenin and Stalin cared as much as any Czar about the Bosphorus and access for Russia to the Mediterranean.

Let me therefore run a draw play of my own and let this objection pass through my defences then run right by it. As I have argued elsewhere, the essence of Realpolitik is to view nations the way the sensible economist views individuals: They have goals we cannot do much to change and which do vary enormously, but we can profoundly alter the way they pursue those goals by altering (and only by altering) the incentives they face. All nations are less likely to invade their neighbour if threatened by nuclear retaliation, whatever their underlying propensity to invasion, and more likely to do so if their neighbour’s most powerful ally suffers a paralyzing economic or moral collapse.

From this point of view it does not matter whether the nature of an adversary’s goals, and his overall understanding of the cosmos, affect his methods. I think they do: For instance the Soviet conviction that history was on their side made them more relentlessly aggressive in the long run than the Czars but, at the same time, their atheism had the salutary effect of making them reasonably cautious in the short run. If so we have far more to fear from nuclear-armed adversaries who think blowing up the world the right way may be precisely the ticket to paradise. But it is not a question we need to settle here, because either way the essence of Realpolitik is a method: that in attempting to shape the conduct of any nation, from Britain to Byzantium, we ought like Adam Smith to talk not of our necessities but of their advantage. Such a conclusion is unaffected by, and has no effect on, the proposition that an adversary is evil, which depends on other considerations — which abound.

Take Genghis Khan, please. Would one call him evil? Would one do so while discussing foreign policy? Certainly conquest by the Mongol Horde seems to fulfil all evil’s essential functions. It was qualitatively different from being conquered by the French, let alone the British, largely because the Mongols evilly held human life cheaper and the suffering of others more entertaining. According to a story in the Globe and Mail in August 2000, Genghis’ “philosophy of life was that a man’s greatest good fortune is to chase and defeat an enemy, seizing his possessions, riding his horses and using the bodies of his women as nightshirts”. As he grew old and worried about mortality, Genghis took an interest in Taoism. With regret, he realized he couldn’t make the lifestyle changes. To call raping half the young women in Asia a ‘lifestyle’ is typical of the verbal and moral contortions of the non-judgemental. For the rest of us, the question was how to stop Genghis Khan, not whether or why.

Complex practical and moral questions remain. God did not go away and leave us in charge. Richard Nixon was right to think he was president of the United States not the world, and while he certainly had the moral and legal right, and possibly the political power, to defend it against its enemies he did not have the moral and legal right, or the political power, to straighten out the entire world. It is difficult to say when pre-emptive action is justified in self-defence, let alone to stop genocide elsewhere. But no one said the job would be easy. And none of these questions affect the fundamental fact that there is evil in the world.

Among the resulting perils is the risk of complicity with raw evil, which can take various forms. In addition to the hard-core supporters; those who dally in geopolitical ‘rough trade’ for the thrill and those who serve evil for money, I suspect there is also a circle of Hell reserved for those whose reaction to evil is neither co-conspiracy nor complicity but frivolity. For instance the reaction of many in the west to the declaration by Iran’s new president that “Israel must be wiped off the map.” He wasn’t kidding, and his election opponent, Hashemi Rafsanjani, had called Israel “the most hideous occurrence in history” which the Muslim world “will vomit out from its midst”. Should the Iranian government string along the silly pseudo-statesmen of the West until its rockets are ready and then annihilate Tel Aviv, those who laughed off Tehran’s threats and reserved their dudgeon for George Bush and Tony Blair will stand convicted of evil no less grotesque for being frivolous.

Cowardice in the face of evil is more complicated. Aristotle called courage first among virtues because without it we exercise the others only where convenient. But its one thing to praise resistance to tyranny from a comfy armchair and quite another to march into Red Square in 1937 and yell that Stalin killed Kirov. However there is a different kind of cowardice that flourishes not under duress but pre-emptively and elaborately disguises pusillanimity as a higher bravery, like Woodrow Wilson being “too proud to fight”. In the long run it is physically dangerous; as Hillaire Belloc said, “Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight/ But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.” But it is immediately disgraceful.

Before we go, is there not a prudential concern that by using terms such as evil we will become sanctimonious, absolutist and warlike? I think not. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “If a war is not a holy war, it is an unholy war.” His reason was that “No man ought ever to fight at all unless he is prepared to put his quarrel before that invisible court of Arbitration with which all religion is concerned. Unless he thinks he is vitally, eternally, cosmically in the right, he is wrong to fire off a pocket-pistol.” I don’t even understand, if there aren’t right and wrong, what we’re all so worked up about? And few things scare me more than someone who thinks if he can beat the posse to his coffin and slam down the lid, he is beyond any punishment. Of course, as Lincoln reminds us, the trick is to make sure you are on the side of the right God. Ba’al won’t do.

We also have to remember Chesterton’s brief answer when asked what is wrong with the world: “I am.” That our enemies are evil by no means guarantees that we are good. But nor does the fact that we are not always good mean our enemies are not evil. They are, and it matters in foreign policy. If it was wrong for Jean-Bedel Bokassa to eat his own citizens it is wrong for him to eat ours, and vice versa. And while it may or may not require us to alter our approach to containing him it certainly affects the urgency.

It was not ‘inappropriate’ of Adolf Hitler to want to exterminate the Jews within Germany and in Germany’s neighbours, to put homosexuals in concentration camps, along with dissidents, and gypsies, murder his opponents and invade his neighbours. It was evil.

I don’t have a simple solution to the problems of evil, let alone an easy one. But I do have a problem of evil, and so do you, at home and abroad. If you’re tempted to doubt it, remember: Hitler.