[Paleopsych] Hedgehog: Charles T. Mathewes: Operationalizing Evil

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Charles T. Mathewes: Operationalizing Evil
The Hedgehog Review - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

           In "Operationlizing Evil," Charles T. Mathewes suggests that we
     need to confront the doubts we have about the language of evil in
     order more fully to incorporate that language into our moral
     discourse. He outlines some of the things that we need the concept of
     evil to do and addresses concerns that scholars have raised about our
     very use of the term, defending it as both necessary and helpful in
     our efforts to understand and act in our world.

           Charles T. Mathewes is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
     at the University of Virginia. His book, Evil and the Augustinian
     Tradition, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2001.

           "There is radical evil in the world," writes Susan Sontag in an
     essay about Kosovo.[3]^1 And I judge that many of us, given some time
     to reflect, would agree. But we live in a time that has done better at
     formulating misgivings about the language of "radical evil" than at
     exploring what follows from our acceptance of it. We lack an
     operationalized concept of evil--a concept that has a unique purpose
     in the discourse of society and is integral to the proper functioning
     of that discourse. Our problem is that the doubts that we can, or
     ought to, operationalize "evil" hold the field almost unopposed.

           This essay aims to help us develop such an operationalized
     concept of evil, by confronting some well-developed concerns about the
     cultural imagination and language of evil. I want to see how far we
     can go towards addressing those concerns and to see what that
     achievement reveals to us about how we might go forward in employing
     the concept of evil in understanding and living our private and public
     lives. What do we gain in using this term? Conversely, what dangers
     inhere in it? The dangers are real, but operationalizing "evil" helps
     us transcend some fundamental difficulties vexing our discussions of
     morality, moving us towards both a more sober assessment of moral
     malformation and a more hopeful vision of our moral possibilities.

What Do We Need the Concept of "Evil" To Do?

           If it is true that, as Andrew Delbanco puts it, "a gap has
     opened up between our awareness of evil and the intellectual resources
     we have for handling it,"[4]^2 then a good place to begin is by
     attempting to sketch what it would mean for the word "evil" to
     circulate in our intellectual economy as real currency and not
     counterfeit tender. Because any attempt at definition might well
     reflect more our own provincial antipathies than any useful adequation
     of the manifold realities of wickedness, it is more useful not to try
     to define evil, but rather to sketch a picture of what any useful
     concept of evil must do for us.

           A useful concept of evil will, I judge, capture two important
     and essentially interrelated dimensions of wickedness and our
     affective responses to it. First, it will acknowledge the inner
     individual psychological dimension of evil. Much malice is rooted in
     individual temptations towards wickedness and cruelty, sprung from old
     psychological wounds or from malformed desire sets--what Augustinians
     like myself call disordered loves. There is such a thing as villainy;
     there are wicked individuals. But inner perversion cannot capture (not
     straightforwardly, in any case) the whole scope of evil; there is a
     second, sociopolitical dimension as well. As Hannah Arendt suggested,
     individuals can do great evil and not necessarily be great villains
     themselves. One lesson of the Third Reich was that humans can do
     horrific things not simply out of a million individual spasms of
     viciousness but out of a "banal" obedience to the norms of their
     society--none of which exculpates, much less forgives, the
     perpetrators, but simply sets the real nature of their flaws in
     perspicuous light for us.[5]^3 We need a way of understanding evil's
     reality when it doesn't tempt us, but "goes without saying" as the
     social atmosphere we breathe. Evil does not occur in a vacuum; there
     must be both a social context and an individual wicked-doer. A useful
     concept of evil should capture both these psychological or "vertical"
     and sociopolitical or "horizontal" dimensions of wickedness, if it is
     to attempt to encompass the multitudinous phenomena understood to be

           In addition to, and intricately related to, the psychological
     and sociopolitical dimensions of evil, an operationalized concept of
     evil must acknowledge evil as both internal and external to those who
     use the word: the evil or temptation to evil within ourselves and the
     evil with which we are confronted in others. We need a way of
     understanding evil as individuals tempted towards wickedness, who must
     acknowledge that temptation and refuse it; we also need a way of
     understanding the evil which confronts us when other individuals do
     horrifying things to which we must respond. It is not enough to speak
     of evil as something outside of ourselves, we also need to acknowledge
     our internal temptations to it. Likewise it is not enough to talk
     about a singular "heart of darkness" on the one hand, or a demonic
     perversion of the individual's basically good primitive desires by a
     civilization's repressive perversities on the other; at least on the
     surface level of explanation, we need both.

Should We Operationalize "Evil"?

           Even though we noted the tasks that "evil" must perform, some
     critics will not want us to use the term "evil" at all. And they have
     their reasons, all rooted back, though in very different ways, to
     Nietzsche's challenge to get "beyond good and evil" by more fully
     inhabiting our natures (though it is part of those natures, on
     Nietzsche's picture, to be in some sense "supra-natural," involved in
     the self-overcoming of one's "natural" constraints). They see the
     language of evil as a fundamentally moralistic language, one fostering
     an essentially distanciated form of basically condemnatory judgment.
     While they reveal some broader cultural tensions about the language of
     evil, these criticisms are expressed and made plausible by flawed
     assumptions about the nature of human moral agency, assumptions which
     I will try to flush into the open and critique.

           Some critics, looking at representations of evil in the cultural
     imagination, argue that we have too tightly tied together evil and
     otherness, so that we see in "the other," the alien, only things that
     we fear. Mark Edmundson, for example, in his searching Nightmare on
     Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic, argues
     that our culture oscillates between a glib optimism of "facile
     transcendence" and a frightened, pessimistic "gothic" foreboding.[6]^4
     Edmundson thinks we should demystify our fear of others by defusing
     their connections with the idea of evil and toss that idea into
     history's dustbin of discarded words. We are much better off with a
     more mundane vocabulary of social ills, one without any sense of
     demonic power or presence in our lives. Were we to do this, we'd see
     our problems for what they are--not insurmountable, but simply
     requiring a lot of effort to overcome. We could, in the end, manage to
     escape the revenge tragedy that is history, the endless cycle of
     mourning and retribution, and be born fully into the present,
     unconstrained by our pasts.[7]^5

           Edmundson's worry is that we have so totally identified evil and
     otherness that all externality, all that is strange, is evil to us.
     But this position replicates in its own proposal the very activity it
     aims to condemn: it seeks to "get over" the gothic fear of the outside
     by putting this fear outside; it intends to overcome our externalizing
     reaction by externalizing it. This is not so much a solution to the
     problem as a further symptom of it. Rather than indulging in the thing
     we are disparaging, it seems the wiser course to begin to resist it;
     and we can do that not by expelling the language of evil from our
     consciousness, but rather by more fully appropriating it, and
     internalizing it, seeing its presence in our lives, fully
     acknowledging, and not being terrified by, our capacity to do evil. In
     other words, because we must accept Edmundson's acute diagnosis of our
     problems, we should refuse his odd prescription. Unless we do so, we
     will fall ever deeper into a "gothic" attitude towards evil--just
     because the experience of evil, however rare it is for most of us,
     remains stubbornly irreducible, in its phenomenological quiddity, to
     anything but itself.

           Edmundson errs in thinking that the problem is that we've gotten
     only partially free from evil's grip and that we must struggle to get
     completely free of it. Against Edmundson's account I would place Karen
     Halttunen's Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic
     Imagination. Halttunen provides a genealogy of the present "gothic"
     morality that Edmundson identifies; but on her account, the root cause
     of our gothic indigestion of the concept of evil lies not in "evilling
     others," in identifying others as evil, but rather in "othering evil,"
     in making it so totally foreign to our understanding of human nature.
     She writes:

       Modern Gothic horror was the characteristic response to evil in a
       culture that provided no systematic intellectual explanation for
       the problem. The Gothic view of evil at work in the cult of horror
       was not an irrational reaction against an excess of Enlightenment
       rationalism, but an indispensable corollary to it, which ultimately
       served to protect the liberal view of human nature. The prevailing
       concept of human nature as basically good, free, and self-governed
       in the light of an innate moral sense, was protected from the
       potential threat of major transgressions by the imaginative
       creation of a monstrous moral alien, separated from the rest of
       humankind by an impassable gulf.[8]^6

           The othering of evil was not just an intellectual problem, but
     was reflected in our institutions (such as the legal system and the
     medical establishment) through the procedures they developed, largely
     in the nineteenth century, to adjudicate their power, in which
     criminals and those deemed mentally unfit were sent away, unseen and
     outside the bounds of "rational" society.[9]^7

           One way to resist both of these tendencies--to deem all others
     evil and to deem evil as totally other and foreign--is more adequately
     to digest and internalize the concept of evil through something like
     the concept of sin. Reinhold Niebuhr captured the real pathos of our
     situation when he pointed out that moderns err most basically by
     ignoring this concept and so misrepresenting to themselves human
     nature: "Both the majesty and the tragedy of human life exceed the
     dimension within which modern culture seeks to comprehend human

           But in affirming this, we come face to face with a second set of
     concerns, most lucidly voiced today by the philosopher Richard Rorty.
     Rorty thinks requests like the one I am making, for a further
     internalization of the concept of evil through the language of sin,
     can actually end up crippling our ability to act. For Rorty, the
     language of evil and sin is not primarily dangerous because it is
     superstitious, but because it is disabling and morally paralyzing.
     This is because the language of sin, as he understands it, is a
     permanent stain on the soul of the offender: it suggests "that the
     commission of certain acts ...is incompatible with further
     self-respect."[11]^9 This makes the language socially as well as
     psychologically inhibiting, and inhibiting of just the sort of
     open-ended experimental attitude to life that Rorty thinks we good
     pragmatists ought to have. To have to think that our experiments with
     life may appear unforgivably morally horrifying from their other end,
     so to speak, is already, for Rorty, to stifle the very sources of
     moral energy that might help us move beyond the crimes and injustices
     of the past and present. But that is what we condemn ourselves to do,
     he thinks, if we permit the language of evil any real purchase on our
     lives. We should instead think of evil as merely a failure of
     imagination, an inability to reach as far as one hopes to reach. In
     this picture, tragedy is possible, but it is hard to see just what
     tragedy means, apart from a provisional break-down in the
     system.[12]^10 According to Rorty, we ought studiously to avoid giving
     evil anything approaching such a dramatic significance, for that can
     only cause us to fear and distract us from the important world-and
     self-building tasks at hand.

           Well, it is true, and importantly so, that we have, at times, as
     a culture and as individuals, approached the moral life with the wrong
     sorts of moralistic questions, asking "how can I avoid blame in this
     situation?" rather than "what is the most fruitful thing to do here?"
     It is surely the case that such moralistic questions have paralyzed us
     at points, and that the language of sin and evil is implicated in
     these failures of nerve. But the misuse of language is not necessarily
     a devastating condemnation of its proper use. And, properly used, the
     language of sin and evil gives us resources Rorty's account notably

           Patricia Greenspan's excellent book Practical Guilt shows the
     manifold and sophisticated ways in which something like a concept of
     guilt can operate to stabilize or pin down our moral framework,
     alongside (I would add) other concepts like regret, and possibly
     remorse.[13]^11 Similar things can be said about sin. "Sin" helps us
     resist the sort of smug self-righteousness that Rorty's work does
     little to defuse (and indeed, I think, does much to promote). This
     self-righteousness is in fact the idol we must keep free of moral
     stain, because it suggests that we are, or ought to aim to be, morally
     pure.[14]^12 Sin disputes this prescription vigorously: in its terms,
     no one is righteous. But sin is not cynicism. It does not excuse
     guilt, it only allows our moral energies not to be dispersed in a
     wrong-headed quest for moral purity. It is enabling, not enervating;
     to feel sinful is already not to despair, it is only to know that
     one's hands are always already dirty, and what water we have to wash
     them in is just as muddy. Thus, the language of sin can be profoundly
     empowering in both our private lives and our public ones. Furthermore,
     the very vagueness that renders it susceptible to misuse works to its
     advantage in the unboundedness of its applicable range. It allows us
     to understand and to act in a way more flexible, because more
     ambiguous, than can any more local, "scientific" discourses, such as
     biology or psycho-pharmacology. Indeed those languages (or, in Rorty's
     helpful term, "vocabularies") are not really rivals of the language of
     sin but rather of sin's more fine-grained sub-categories--that is, for
     particular sorts of sins.

           But it is in our self-understanding that the language of evil
     has the most to teach us, because it suggests something about the
     nature of our agency that we must heed. It suggests that we be very
     mindful of what we do, that we be deliberate in our actions, because
     we have a very important role to play in the sort of world we inhabit.
     Too often we picture ourselves either wholly as ex nihilo choosers,
     ontological shoppers with no real past to our actions and no permanent
     affect on the future (our shopping is always a useless passion, a form
     of existentialist nihilistic consumerism, Jean-Paul Sartre at the
     Wal-Mart); or we picture ourselves as medicalized patients determined
     by our pasts and slaves to our genes (as Jessica Rabbit says in Who
     Framed Roger Rabbit?, "I'm not bad; I'm just drawn that way"), so
     that, as Jean Bethke Elshtain has said, we don't believe in sins but
     in syndromes. This effort to so basically de-moralize us, to
     re-conceive the human "as a component with a stipulated function"
     threatens to deprive humans of their inviolability, a move with
     chilling consequences; as Andrew Delbanco puts it:

       If it [i.e., the human] fails to perform properly, it is subject to
       repair or disposal; but there is no real sense of blame
       involved--no more than with a ball bearing or a hose that has gone
       bad. We think in terms of adjusting the faulty part or, if it is
       too far gone, of putting it away.[15]^13

           But thinking about us as agents who have morally weighty choices
     is, in this setting, a well-nigh revolutionary idea. It is a form of
     respect, both for ourselves and others. So in a way the question of
     whether we will operationalize the concept of evil is a question about
     whether we want to keep thinking of ourselves, and our neighbors, as
     worthy of that respect.


           In thinking about operationalizing evil, we face less a problem
     than a choice. We must choose whether or not we wish to affirm our
     received view of the moral character of human existence, particularly
     when we realize that it is premised upon a wager, the wager that we
     are genuinely what we think we are: in some measure free, responsible
     agents, capable of harming ourselves disastrously and doing so not out
     of medical causality but just because we choose to do so.[16]^14 The
     language of freedom and the language of evil are inextricably
     intertwined in this way. Today, we fear that our agency is not what
     this picture suggests. And this picture can be easily misperceived as
     overly optimistic, even naive. I wouldn't want too thoroughly to
     silence those fears; if we accept the wager on the usefulness of the
     language of evil, we must remember that it is a wager, and cannot be
     irrefutably proved to be true. This position is predicated on the
     empirically refutable idea that human action can at times find no
     determinant causal antecedents, and on the philosophically
     controversial idea that this sort of indeterminism is of the essence
     of human freedom. And these predications are invariably open to doubt.

           It may be the case that this picture of freedom may need to go,
     or that we ought actually to wish it gone. And it may be the case that
     our culture's current tectonic drift away from an operationalized
     language of evil is part of a larger transformation of our
     self-understanding, which may have larger historical causes. Our
     increasing incomprehension of evil may be due to our increasing
     domesticity, our (happily) increasing willingness rather "to negotiate
     differences than to take up arms to settle them,"[17]^15 so that our
     domestication and increasing moral aphasia concerning "evil" go
     hand-in-hand. But not everyone is becoming so domesticated, and I
     strongly doubt that even total domesticity will warrant us jettisoning
     this language entirely. Or it may be the case that our culture has
     decided to refuse to live with evil and pain, has decided to deny
     their presence in our lives and to seek to extirpate them entirely.
     That seems unwise to me; we will always have suffering, and while we
     should not stop seeking to reduce its reality and combat it, we have
     no warrant to cease thinking about it because such thinking scares or
     depresses us.

           To be human--at least in any way which seems relevantly
     continuous with our current humanity--is to be creatures for whom the
     language of evil, or some functional equivalent thereof, must remain
     viable. There are many thinkers today who wish to transform us into
     something new, creatures who do not have the concept of evil available
     to them; and the picture such thinkers paint, of agents and indeed of
     a world without "evil," is by no means a wholly unattractive one. But
     it is, I think, unreachable; and its attractions are outweighed by the
     moral costs attendant upon it. The solution to our current
     perplexities lies not in further weakening the grip of the concept of
     "evil" upon us, but in the direction of improving our understanding
     and use of it. For only by having a viable concept of evil can we hope
     to make sense of the idea of goodness.

     [18]^1 Susan Sontag, The New York Times Magazine (Sunday, May 9,
     1999). ] [19]^2 Andrew Delbanco, The Death of Satan: How Americans
     Have Lost the Sense of Evil (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
     1995) 3. ] [20]^3 See Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report
     on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking, 1965). It is important to
     note that, contrary to popular belief, Arendt's concept of "banality"
     does not entail that anybody in Eichmann's position would have done
     what he did; he was not ordinary, but "banal," and there is a
     difference. Furthermore, we must not let the banality thesis blind us
     to the possibility that sometimes genocide can involve the willful
     violence of many thousands of individuals; see Philip Gourevich's We
     Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With our Families:
     Stories from Rwanda (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998). ]
     [21]^4 Even critical theorists are not immune to this; according to
     Edmundson, they "invite us to be afraid, but not, in general, to fight
     back." See his Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and
     the Culture of Gothic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997)
     62. ] [22]^5 See Edmundson, Nightmare on Main Street, 150-160, on the
     outline of this liberatory program. ] [23]^6 Karen Halttunen, Murder
     Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination (Cambridge,
     MA: Harvard University Press, 1998) 59; cf. 56, 239. ] [24]^7
     Halttunen, Murder Most Foul, 240: "The Gothic narrative of the crime
     of murder played a primary role in shaping the modern response to
     criminal transgression, both mandating the social quarantining of
     criminals in penitentiaries and mental hospitals, and reinforcing the
     radical otherness of the criminal deviant on which that quarantining
     rested." ] [25]^8 Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man,
     Volume I: Human Nature (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1941) 122.
     ] [26]^9 Richard Rorty, Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in
     Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
     1998) 32, 33. Rorty thinks the language of sin is anathema to "the
     secular, antiauthoritarian vocabulary of shared social hope." ]
     [27]^10 See Rorty, Achieving Our Country, 33. Rorty's theodicy of the
     Gulag seems to me far too weak and consoling; he suggests that we come
     to see such moral atrocities as part of a narrative "in which we
     leftists, often with the best intentions, tricked ourselves, fooled
     ourselves, outsmarted ourselves, yet gained a lot of useful
     experience" (Truth and Progress [New York: Cambridge University Press,
     1998] 241). Which means, after the Holocaust, that what we should do
     is "pick ourselves up and try again" (175)! The idea that the basic
     flaw is really a failure of moral energy is almost breathtaking in its
     naiveté. ] [28]^11 Patricia Greenspan, Practical Guilt: Moral
     Dilemmas, Emotions, and Social Norms (New York: Oxford University
     Press, 1995). ] [29]^12 Indeed, perhaps the concept of sin can be
     therapeutically useful, to illuminate the full complexity of
     psychosis; on this, see A. A. Howespian's "Sin and Psychosis," 264-281
     in Limning the Psyche: Explorations in Christian Psychology, ed.
     Robert C. Roberts and Mark R. Talbot (Grand Rapids: William B.
     Eerdmans, 1997). See also A. O. Rorty, "The Social and Political
     Sources of Akrasia," in Ethics 107.4 (July 1997): 644-657. ] [30]^13
     Delbanco, The Death of Satan, 12. ] [31]^14 My argument here is deeply
     indebted to Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge, MA:
     Harvard University Press, 1989). ] [32]^15 Halttunen, Murder Most
     Foul, 9. ]

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