[Paleopsych] Farid Abdel-Nour: An International Ethics of Evil?

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An International Ethics of Evil?
Farid Abdel-Nour, San Diego State University, California, USA
International Relations Vol 18(4): 425-439
http://ire.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/18/4/425, converted by me.

Summary from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.7

Actions must sometimes be called "evil," but that term should be
invoked with care, says Farid Abdel-Nour, an associate professor
of political science at San Diego State University. His essay is
one of seven in an issue devoted to the concept of evil in
international affairs.

In discussing ethics, he says, the usual language of
international norms is indispensable, but it lacks the "raw
immediacy" of the vocabulary of evil.

"To speak of genocide as a violation of norms or international
law is to speak a language so cold and distant that it seems to
inhabit another universe from the one in which the actions being
named take place," he writes. The vocabulary of evil, however,
"allows us to express the depth and magnitude of horrors."

But Mr. Abdel-Nour cautions against the temptation to think of
evil as something completely separate from the self, because
that kind of rhetoric "helps to brand political opponents as
foes for eradication rather than enemies to be checked."

Evil is better thought of as the extreme manifestation of
tendencies that are present in everyone, he says. "Barbarism and
human depravity are not the sole property of 'evil' others," he
writes. "They also characterize us and our cherub-faced sons and
daughters, when we are at our worst."

Abstract (from the article)

Ethical debates in international relations tend to rely either on the
vocabulary of norms or the vocabulary of evil. In an effort to conceive
of a richer international ethics, this article explores the possibility
of combining the two. Since the vocabulary of norms is indispensable,
the question is how to supplement it. The most prevalent conception of
evil turns out to be a dangerous and inappropriate supplement, for it
posits evil as absolutely-not-self, and as an attribute of foes to be
eradicated. The second conception of evil highlights the connections
between evil and self. When applied to the international context, this
conception encourages self-critical public debates about present and
past injustices, helping societies to confront and heal ethnic, racial,
and other political wounds. Thus a rich international ethics is best
woven out of the vocabulary of norms and the conception of evil as

Keywords: evil, evil as absolutely-not-self, evil as connected-to-self,

Debates about inter-societal ethics have moved beyond amoralism and pure
skepticism focus not on the question whether ethics but, rather, what
kind of ethics? In this article I examine the relative merits of the
vocabulary of inter-societal norms and international law on the one
hand, and the vocabulary of evil on the other, as alternative ways of
thinking about ethical questions in the inter-societal arena. My goal is
to clarify some of the stakes involved in drawing on each of these two
vocabularies, and to disentangle salutary ethical conceptions and uses
from dangerous ones. In the first section I deal with some of the
relative attractions and shortcomings of the two vocabularies and argue
that the vocabulary of norms, while indispensable, suffers from serious
deficiencies that can potentially be addressed by supplementing it with
the vocabulary of evil. In the second section, I focus on one
particularly dangerous and widely used variant of the vocabulary of
evil, and argue that the risks of relying on this conception of evil in
inter-societal affairs are unacceptably high. In the third section I
present an alternative, promising, conception of evil, and in the fourth
I point briefly to a richer way of thinking about ethics in the
inter-societal arena that can successfully combine norms with talk about

I. Norms or evil?

General norms of conduct render stable human relations possible. They
inject an element of predictability in a contingent and uncertain world.
One of the lasting insights of modern Western political thought is that
political stability requires the existence of institutions to apply and
enforce social norms impartially. Otherwise, unchecked self-love, an
inescapable feature of the human condition, would dispose human beings
towards conflict. One need not suggest that human beings are
self-interested individualists, separated from communities or lacking
altruistic impulses, before one can recognize the ubiquity of the
problem, and the attractions of the solution. All one needs to
acknowledge is that human beings are finite, with limited capacities for
love and affection, and that they cannot reasonably be expected to be
completely free from self-interest (even if they are capable of
overcoming it). It would, for example, be unreasonable to pretend that
human beings would be recognizable without a magnified concern for the
self and its future, and such partial interests and connections as
family, friends, nation, or other particular group. Relations between
such partial beings are what necessitate the establishment of norms of
conduct, along with mechanisms for their impartial application and
enforcement. If, in the inter-societal arena, stable and orderly
relations are desirable, then the existence of institutionalized norms
is indispensable. An ethical vocabulary of inter-societal norms and
international law that accounts for this fact is thus unavoidable. The
question here is whether such a vocabulary is sufficient. In what
follows, I shall examine some of the shortcomings of this vocabulary in
the inter-societal arena in order to identify the areas in which it
needs to be supplemented.

When we express our ethical judgments about inter-societal relations in
terms of a vocabulary of legal and moral norms, we focus our attention
on whether the actions in question conform to or violate recognized
norms of conduct. By itself this simple mental exercise brings forth one
shortcoming of the ethical vocabulary of norms. It is cold and detached,
having a meager capacity to account for lived horrors. Consider, for
example, that one of the important contributions of international law in
the twentieth century was to identify the crime of 'genocide'. Yet to
speak of genocide as a violation of norms or international law is to
speak a language so cold and distant that it seems to inhabit another
universe from the one in which the actions being named take place. The
way that White House spokespersons and United Nations officials spoke
about the events in Rwanda in 1994 is a case in point. As described by
Michael Barnett, much was made of whether the events in question
constituted genocide, or merely 'acts of genocide'.1 When we try to
squeeze the horrors for which the term genocide was invented into the
normative framework of criminality, we necessarily hesitate, haggle, and
deliberate with detachment. There is a ghastly discrepancy between the
mental and discursive operation of determining whether particular events
constitute norm violations on the one hand, and the raw horrors on the
ground, on the other. In this inheres an intuitive failure of the
vocabulary of norms. It is cold, abstract, and distant in the face of
massacre, carnage, and slaughter. It seems incapable of capturing the
core features of such situations that move our moral imaginations and

Another shortcoming of the vocabulary of norms is that it serves an
obfuscating role when applied to inter-societal relations. The
inter-societal political arena, while it is certainly not a condition of
anarchy, is a condition on the edge of 'normal' politics. Speaking of
the inter-societal context mainly within a (Kantian) framework of norms
can easily obscure the special nature of that arena, which could
otherwise help us intuit something about the bases of 'normal' political
order. The inter-societal arena as it exists today, unlike the domestic
political arenas defined and structured by organized states, has the
potential of making the constitution of norms, the establishment of
institutions, the conditions of stable political order present to us.
The vocabulary of norms tends to obscure these conditions that underlie
'normal' politics, for it leaves room only for asking about degrees of
conformity to standards. Tellingly, within Kant's normative framework,
nothing about the political sphere, in its societal or inter-societal
context, requires any consideration other than how to identify a set of
standards and implement them. His original contract, the thought
experiment with which political standards for state and interstate
relations are to be devised, is simply an extension of the categorical
imperative, which serves as the orienting device for individual action.2
To Kant, the imperatives of individual action, the political
constitution of the state, and the constitution of the international
order all line up from the perspective of Reason, in the form of a set
of mutually consistent institutions and norms. Yet, as students of
politics have long recognized, the world of politics can be far more

Whatever one thinks of the political theories of Machiavelli, Luther,
Hobbes, Weber, Morgenthau, and Walzer, they all converge on one
important insight, namely that conflicts of value and ethical
compromises are part and parcel of the political arena and the human
condition, and that they cannot be simply attributed to some corrigible
human frailty. Unlike Kant's framework of norms within which we are
urged to determine simply whether political actions and institutions
measure up to justice, these other theorists' frameworks urge us to
ponder the paradoxes, tragic choices, and profound conflicts of value
that define the political sphere. As Michael Walzer reminds us in his
discussion of the problem of dirty hands, politics necessitates
compromises with ethics; what remains for us to do, in bringing ethical
considerations to bear on inter-societal politics, is to be vigilant
about the nature and scope of such compromises and always to assess and
reassess them.3 Once we adopt the ethical compromise perspective, it
ceases to suffice for us to know whether a particular norm has been
violated. Rather it becomes necessary to consider which values have been
furthered at the expense of which other values, and to take a position
on that compromise. The vocabulary of inter-societal norms and
international law leaves little room for such considerations.

In assessing the utility of the ethical vocabulary of norms in
inter-societal affairs, two additional factors ought to be considered.
First, the worthiness of some of the most basic existing inter-societal
norms is controversial. Second, the paucity and weakness of
inter-societal institutions of norm application and enforcement can give
norms an air of being empty standards. The ethical force of a norm of
conduct, i.e. its worthiness to elicit obedience, depends primarily on
the degree to which thenorm in question is freely acceptable to those
whose actions are being judged.4 For example, much of the ethical force
of human rights norms depends upon the assumption of their universal
validity. Yet the Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself is far
from being uncontroversial. The challenges that it has had to confront
of late, such as the idea of 'Asian values', and the debates concerning
political versus social and economic rights, are disputes that human
rights norms have faced from their inception. Most famously, during the
debates surrounding its adoption in 1948, the Saudi Ambassador to the UN
argued that the Declaration embodied standards and values that are "at
variance with the patterns of culture of Eastern States".5

What this means is that there is an important connection between the
strength of human rights as moral and legal norms of conduct and the
philosophical enterprise of justifying their universal validity. I have
argued elsewhere that such philosophical justifications remain elusive.6
This makes it harder to dismiss the objections that are raised against
the universal applicability of these norms. While universally valid
philosophical justifications for some of the most basic inter-societal
norms remain elusive, these norms confront an additional challenge. Even
when they are codified in international law, they require
institutionalized mechanisms, such as courts, that allow for their
proper application to particular cases, ensuring that genuine violations
are distinguished from merely apparent ones. And they require
enforcement mechanisms to ensure that genuine violations are addressed.
The existence of the International Court of Justice and the
International Criminal Court indicates that some rudimentary application
mechanisms are beginning to take shape in the inter-societal context.
However, enforcement mechanisms remain elusive. The lack of enforcement
and the limitations of application mechanisms render the advocates of
inter-societal norms vulnerable to Hegel's critique of Kant. For they
must ultimately face the impotence of their 'ought' which, to quote
Hegel, simply 'smash[es] up on the rock of hard reality'.7 This
criticism would be less damaging if they could at least offer
justifications of the universal validity of the norms in question. This
much at least Kant could offer because he could believe that he had
derived the universal moral law from the categories of the
understanding. The problem is that our philosophical investigations keep
pointing towards a possible pluralism of values in the world.
Furthermore, historical investigations reveal how easy it is for
parochial standards and values to masquerade as universals. Today, the
advocates of the vocabulary of inter-societal norms can count on being
haunted by the challenges of justification, application, and enforcement
as well as by the coldness of their vocabulary and its obfuscating

The most obvious alternative to the ethical vocabulary of norms is the
vocabulary of evil. Within the vocabulary of evil one can capture tragic
choices and paradoxes. Ethical compromise theorists, for example, can
speak of choosing the lesser of two evils (Morgenthau, Walzer), the
trade-off between being a good political leader and a good human being
(Machiavelli, Luther, Weber), and the like.

The vocabulary of evil reminds us that norm-regulated, stable human
existence is fragile, that its failure is always around the corner, and
that dark forces structure the human condition. This vocabulary
acknowledges that the fragile stability of norm-regulated human
relations is always grabbed out of the jaws of barbarism, death, and
destruction. Hobbes and Renan never tired of reminding us that violence
and brutality are often the preconditions of stability and order, and
Freud's discussion of the death instinct crystallizes this insight.8

The vocabulary of evil therefore avoids the obfuscations of the
vocabulary of norms. Furthermore, it allows us to express the depth and
magnitude of horrors. Consider the following two descriptions: (i) the
attack on the World Trade Center (WTC) on September 11th, 2001 violated
the international norm prohibiting the targeting of civilians; (ii) the
attack on the WTC on September 11th, 2001 was an evil act. What the
second statement lacks in analytical clarity, it compensates for in
ethical clarity. Whereas the first explicates a justification of the
judgment, the second statement is less explicit about the underpinnings
of the judgment, but is far clearer about the extent and meaning of the
act. Its attraction is that it does not merely capture the fact that 19
hijackers violated the rules, played dirty, defied a norm (as the first
statement implies), but instead expresses the sense that there is
something at play here that is far more sinister than simply the
violation of even the most serious and important of rules. Those who
call the events of September 11th 'evil' do not presume to do away with
norms; they simply point to the inadequacy of the language of norms to
express fully the moral reality of those events.

In calling a deed evil, the issue of whether or not the deed violates a
moral or legal norm is secondary or moot. When we use the vocabulary of
evil we are saying that should it turn out, upon reflection, that the
deed is not a violation of an accepted norm, we will take that fact to
be more telling about the poverty of our arsenal of norms than about our
moral reaction to the deed. To rely simply on the vocabulary of norms to
judge the Holocaust, the deeds of the Khmer Rouge, or the Gulag, for
example, is to commit some kind of moral sacrilege. It is as if we have
relativized the horror by making it contingent upon the conclusion of
some other mental exercise. The vocabulary of evil, on the other hand,
has an immediacy that exhibits and affirms the speaker's moral vitality.

Furthermore, the vocabulary of evil eliminates the problem of
justification that plagues the vocabulary of norms in the inter-societal
context. The very concept of a general norm, especially a universal
inter-societal one, immediately evokes the question of the grounds and
perspectives from which it can claim validity. The concept of evil,
however, implies a horror that is absolute, deeply experienced, and
felt, so that the question of the particularity or universality of the
judgment does not even arise. Irrespective of whether those who use the
vocabulary of evil try to offer universal justifications (they often
do), their ethical vocabulary does not demand such a move. Thus they are
not susceptible to a crisis of philosophical justification in the way
that users of universal norms are.

For all its visceral 'authenticity', however, the concept of evil defies
definition, and ultimately when we use it we are unclear about the
attributes that constitute an evil action or person, even as we are very
clear about our reaction to the action or person. Evil is so completely
dependent on how it is experienced, that it is difficult to determine
whether such an experience in a particular case, and the consequent
naming of something or somebody as evil, is warranted. This is in
contrast with the vocabulary of norms. Norms, no matter how well or
badly justified, call for a distinct step of application. The vocabulary
of norms imposes a conceptual separation between the general norm and
the particular case. The idea of the consistent and impartial
application of norms serves as a guide for navigating this gulf. The
vocabulary of evil, however, avoids precisely this gap. Its very ability
to do so reveals its independence from the idea of impartiality.

Impartiality, of course, is a difficult idea. It may in fact express an
aspiration more than a genuine possibility. The conditions under which
impartiality can genuinely be expected to prevail are usually described
in counterfactual terms, as they are in Rawls's original position and
Habermas's ideal discourse situation. Thus it might appear at this stage
that the ability of the vocabulary of evil to avoid this difficult idea,
and the abyss separating general norms from particular cases, is one
more advantage that the vocabulary of evil has over the vocabulary of
norms. To say this seriously, however, one would need to ignore the
important political function played by the idea of impartiality and the
genuine problem of political stability that it, together with the
vocabulary of norms, emerged to address. In fact, the vocabulary of
evil's independence from the idea of impartiality is one of its most
troubling features, as will become evident in the following section.

The ethical vocabulary of evil has many attractions. It has a raw
immediacy as well as an ability to account for the complexity of
politics, the conflicts of value that it entails, and the tragic choices
it posits. However, this vocabulary suffers from a conceptual
slipperiness and indeterminacy, further exacerbated by its
susceptibility to the problems engendered by self-love. Its independence
from impartiality means that it does not contain within it the resources
with which to counteract self-love. That is why it cannot stand as an
alternative to the vocabulary of norms, but only as a possible
supplement. While the vocabulary of norms suffers from a number of
shortcomings, it remains indispensable in ethical debates over
inter-societal relations, precisely because it implicitly carries with
it the aspiration towards impartiality. Furthermore, the ability of the
vocabulary of evil to supplement and enrich ethical discourse in the
inter-societal context depends upon the conceptual clarity that can be
brought to it. In the following sections I will isolate two conceptions
of evil, in an attempt to contribute to such clarity.

II. Evil as absolutely-not-self: a dangerous conception

A strong current in the history of the concept of evil (in the Christian
tradition at least) tends to place evil squarely outside the self and to
make it extrinsic and separable from the self. Evil becomes a category
with which to create distance between one's actions and one's self, and
with which to refer to others (usually without much concern for a
similar distance). The consequences of relying on this conception of
evil when thinking about inter-societal affairs can be quite serious,
leading one to target one's adversaries for eradication, rather than
simply for defeat.

This conception of evil as 'not-self' is particularly well illustrated
by John Milton's version of the Biblical fall narrative in Paradise
Lost.9 In Milton's narrative Satan's pride, ambition, and his refusal to
submit to God are the causes of his fall (Book IV). Similarly, Eve's
rebelliousness and her refusal to accept her assigned place are also the
causes of her disobedience and fall. Yet, despite the similarities, evil
is only an attribute of Satan, not of Eve. Milton has Satan saying 'Evil
be thou my good' (Book IV), thus rendering him into the personification
of evil, whereas Eve is never associated with evil. In fact, to conceive
of Eve as evil would be unthinkable. Eve, the mother of humankind with
whom we are expected to identify, has violated a command and exhibited
her fallibility, she has sinned and been tempted, but she is not evil.
As it turns out, even sin itself is not autochthonous to her, but
Satan's child (Book X). Milton's poem describes 'our' origins. It tells
the story of 'our' ancestors Eve and Adam, who are the source of our
selfhood. In that story Satan is the quintessential other.

Even where at times evil appears to be internal to us, as in the case of
original sin, it turns out that it can be ritually externalized. Sin can
be purged and we can be saved precisely because evil is always simply an
intrusion, a temptation, or a 'possession', remaining, in essence,
not-self. In his description of his character Goodman Brown, Nathaniel
Hawthorne illuminates this conception further. Hawthorne presents Brown
on his way to being inducted into the cult of the devil: 'the fiend in
his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man'.
Thus, even when Goodman Brown is on his way to join the devil and
'nothing [in the haunted forest is] more frightful than [his] figure',
it is really 'the fiend' who 'rages in . . . [his] breast'.10 The
closest that evil comes to self is in the form of a 'possession'. The
decision to ascribe Goodman Brown's frightful hideousness to the fiend
is of course vindicated in the story, for it turns out that the fiendish
possession is temporary in the life of the protagonist. The fact that he
lives the rest of his life suspicious of everyone he knows, seeing the
fiend in them all, tells us that Goodman Brown had only one certainty in
his life: the fiend is not-self.

In this conception evil is not only not-self, but the nature of its
separation from self is absolute. Nietzsche's discussion of the
difference between good'bad morality and good'evil morality illuminates
the nature of self 's separation from evil as he sees it in the
Judeo-Christian tradition. For Nietzsche the separation of bad from good
is relative. For the bad, weak, cowardly ones are simply pale shadows of
the strong, noble, courageous ones. While the noble good ones in the
good'bad mode of valuation could not imagine themselves being cowardly
and while it would be laughable to expect them to exhibit the behaviors
of the weak, it would be within their power to exhibit such behaviors.
In contrast, however, in the good'evil mode of valuation, the separation
of evil from good is absolute. For evil is what weak selves call the
strong whom they fear and consequently hate. Thus evil is not only most
decidedly not-self, it is what self cannot be. The weak, despite their
selfdeceptions to the contrary, cannot by any stretch of the imagination
choose to be strong. Rather, they develop their 'virtues' in order to
adapt to their situation.11 One of Nietzsche's insights here is that
evil marks an absolute distinction from self, whereas bad denotes only a
relative distinction.

So absolutely distinct is evil traditionally from self, that its
adoption and wholehearted embrace as an inescapable part of natural
authentic selfhood by people such as the Marquis de Sade and Baudelaire
was not only positively shocking in their day, but does not promise to
lose its shock value any time soon. Evil, therefore, whatever else it
is, is traditionally radically other, extrinsic to self. Whatever one
might say about oneself ' 'I am guilty', 'I have sinned', 'I made a
mistake', 'I violated a norm', 'I was tempted', 'I was led astray' ' one
does not say, 'I am evil'. When one does, the purpose is usually to
shock, to say the unsayable, to evoke the unthinkable. However, 'X
(defined as not-self) is evil' is a locution that comes easily. Reagan's
'Evil Empire', Khomeini's 'The Great Satan', G. W. Bush's 'Axis of Evil'
all made their way into political discourse with relative ease, as
descriptions of individuals or regimes as radically other, explicitly

Evil colonizes, seduces, tempts, takes over, and misleads self. But then
what are self's appropriate responses to be? What distinguishes the
competitor, challenger, colonizer, tempter, and seducer, when understood
as evil, from all other colonizers and challengers? A distinction
derived by George Schwab from the work of Carl Schmitt helps to
illuminate the matter at hand. It is well known that, according to Carl
Schmitt, the concept of the political is premised on the friend'enemy
distinction. However, according to Schwab, undergirding the friend'enemy
distinction in Schmitt's work, is the enemy'foe distinction. The
ordinary enemy, without whom there is no politics, is a differently
conceived adversary from the foe whose eradication makes the politics of
friend'enemy possible.

Schwab traces the distinction between enemy and foe to the Biblical
distinction between 'the private adversary. . . "soneh" and the public
adversary. . . "ojeb"'.12 The wars of indiscriminate destruction
described in the Bible and that characterize the crusades have in common
the idea that the public adversary was the adversary of God, 'damned in
advance', '. . . and no quarter should be given him'.13 According to
Schwab, the aftermath of the wars of religion was characterized by the
following conceptual shift in inter-societal affairs:
by virtue of the fact that the public adversary was no longer considered
a devil or an adversary fit for annihilation, war practices became
circumscribed. As a result of this transformation of the public foe into
a public enemy, wars, diabolical as it may sound, became, so to speak,

The vocabulary of evil in inter-societal affairs evokes the concept of
the 'foe' rather than the 'enemy'. To speak of the 'Evil Empire' was to
speak of that which required more than a strategy of containment. The
same applies when one speaks of Great Satans and Axes of Evil and when
one launches wars on terrorism. Evil adversaries must be destroyed. The
ubiquitous figure of the evil terrorist who must be eradicated at all
costs illustrates the strength of this connection in mainstream
political discourse in the US. When confronted with an evil foe such as
'the terrorist', self's appropriate response ceases to be simply to
defend itself, resist, or even defeat; but instead to stamp out,
annihilate, and eradicate, in order to make normal 'friend' enemy'
politics possible.

In this section I have argued that the idea of evil is traditionally
conceptualized as absolutely-not-self, and that as such it forms part of
an ethical vocabulary that helps to brand political opponents as foes
for eradication rather than enemies to be checked. This attribute of the
conception of evil renders it particularly dangerous in ethical debates
over inter-societal relations.

III. Evil as connected-to-self: a promising conception

Widespread as it is, the above conception of evil is not without a main
challenger. In this section I explore a second, more politically
salutary conception of evil rooted in Hannah Arendt's work. This latter
conception, which highlights evil's connection to self, once developed
further by Alessandro Ferrara, yields a promising formulation that
allows the vocabulary of evil to serve as an enriching supplement to the
vocabulary of norms in inter-societal affairs.

Arendt's well-known diagnosis of Adolf Eichmann, that 'one cannot
extract any diabolical or demonic profundity' from him, is on some level
gratifying.15 For it teaches us that Eichmann, unlike the intriguing
characters of Milton's Satan or Goethe's Mephistopheles, is simply not
interesting. Arendt's analysis leads us to think of Eichmann as boring
and to conclude that we would never want to be like him. However, that
is because we are already like him. Arendt's most shocking, and at the
same time most insightful, contributions had to do with Eichmann's
'nor-malcy'.16 She noticed that he spoke in clichés and stock phrases.
clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of
expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of
protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our
thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their
existence. If we respond to this claim all the time, we would soon be
exhausted; the difference in Eichmann was only that he clearly knew of
no such claim at all.17

Eichmann did not exhibit special or unusual qualities. Instead, he
simply allowed thoughtfulness, which most of us are guilty of
suffocating in ourselves under the pressures of everyday life, to become
completely extinguished in him. Rather than relying on clichés as a way
of saving his thinking attention for things that mattered, Eichmann
simply left no space for anything to deserve his thinking attention.

Evil then is not radically other. It is uncomfortably close. Its
distance from ordinary life and ordinary vices is small. Distance
certainly exists between ordinary persons and Eichmann, but that the
difference can be captured by the relative concept of distance, and by
such a small step at that, is what is most disturbing about Arendt's
insight. As A. O. Rorty writes, 'Nothing is easier, nothing more natural
than sliding down the slippery slope to corruption, and from there to
the hardened heart that allows people to re-describe their wrongdoing so
that they can accept it as reasonable and confirm it as justified'.18
Rorty tells the story of an academic, Cain, who through a series of
small steps, all of which are within the realm of ordinary everyday
behavior, undergoes a 'banal transformation from an ordinary, somewhat
weak fellow to someone who is prepared to justify subjecting a colleague
to attack'.19 Moral corruption, Rorty illustrates with this example,
does not need unusual or extraordinary circumstances to blossom; we
always live in its shadow.

So far we have seen that in contrast to the conception of evil as
absolutely-not-self, evil has been conceptualized by Arendt and Rorty as
always lurking in the self, a potential possibility. The danger inherent
in the political use of the first conception was that it could so easily
be associated with the idea of a foe to be eradicated. The danger of
this second conception is that it can foster pessimism about our ability
to make clear ethical judgments. For it complicates our ability to
reject evil wholeheartedly. How can we reject evil absolutely if we are
so connected to it? I suspect that much of the controversy over Arendt's
analysis of Eichmann emerges from an awareness of this danger.

Alessandro Ferrara develops the conception of evil as closely connected
to self in a way that avoids this serious danger. His argument is based
on his theory of authenticity. He writes:

As Plato reminds us in Protagoras, no one commits evil actions while
thinking that they are evil. People commit evil actions while carried
away by their misconceived views of the good . . . for what was done at
Auschwitz was done in the name of the good for a certain community. . .
. At the core of the Nazimoral vision was a biological understanding of
the good as the furthering of the racial purity of a people. Racial
purity, in turn, was deemed valuable as a way of increasing the chances
of survival in a Darwinistically conceived process of evolution in which
the human species, and the peoples or races that compose it, are always

At this point, it would seem that Ferrara has made things worse. For if
the evil we commit appears to us as a good, then the prospects for
rejecting it become slim. It would seem that he is taking us down a
slippery path towards complete moral skepticism and relativism, making
this conception even more unattractive.

However, it would be a mistake to draw such an implication from his
argument. Ferrara appropriates Durkheim's conception of the sacred and
adapts it to formulate his conception of evil. He writes:

What is needed in order to turn something collectively prized into
something sacred is a certain exemplariness of the sacred thing, namely
its capacity to bring to expression some dimension of the group which at
the same time is unique and is located at the symbolic center of the
group's identity. . . . For Durkheim thesociety which we presuppose in
our experience of the sacred is the actual society idealized ... namely
a society which neither is taken 'as is' nor gets transfigured into some
transcendental ideal no longer connected with who we are. It is our
actual society as it could be if all of its positive potentials were to

By extension:

If the sacred is a projection of us at our best, and the world of the
profane a representation of us as we actually are, . . . evil can be
conceptualized as a projection of us at our worst, the worst that we can
prove to be while still maintaining those characteristics that make us .
. . us as a community, a society, or humanity . . . what we are.21

This conceptualization has the benefit of allowing us to reject evil
absolutely while recognizing its connection to ourselves. One of
Ferrara's many insights here is that, when having despaired of all
philosophical attempts at grounding moral judgments philosophically and
having had to resort to the depths of who we are as an anchor, we are
reminded that who we are is not wholly worthy of orienting us in action,
because evil is also part of who we are. We now ask, 'Us at our best, or
us at our worst?' Such a question implies an absolute judgment of value
that pierces through relativist arguments and ethnocentrism, and opens
up a space for critical self-reflection. Within this framework, we can
reject evil without externalizing it.

Ferrara examines evil from the perspective of those who recognize that
committing it is a possibility for them. For they are ones who have
either committed evil, or would have committed it. By recognizing that
they have done it, or almost done it, or could as easily have done it,
the agents here reflect on who they are and who they wish to become.
Ferrara writes, 'when something is recognized as evil, it means that we
are already distancing ourselves from it, that the darkness of the night
is over and a new dawn is beginning'.22 We can reject parts of ourselves
absolutely. Taking the perspective of the agents, the evil-doers, or
prospective evildoers, this conception of evil guards against the worst
attributes of the conception of evil as absolutely-not-self, which
adopts the observer's perspective. For as Trudy Govier reminds us, when
we act as observers we can easily slip into adopting what she calls the
'Myth of Pure Evil', according to which 'evil is perpetrated by others,
who are wicked characters. We ... need not fear that we would ever do
evil deeds ourselves, because we, unlike the others, are ourselves
fundamentally and fixedly innocent and good'.23 Ferrara's formulation,
in contrast, by giving us a means of thinking about our connectedness
with evil, while simultaneously distancing ourselves from it and
rejecting it absolutely, captures the dialectic of evil.

IV. Navigating ethical vocabularies in inter-societal affairs

The question now is whether, and if so how, the vocabulary of evil is to
be used in inter-societal affairs. Can it be used to substitute for the
vocabulary of norms, given the latter's evident shortcomings? Or, can it
at least be used to fill in the gaps where the other vocabulary is
insufficiently developed and its institutions insufficiently extended?
To use the vocabulary of evil as absolutely-not-self in inter-societal
affairs is to tread down a very dangerous path indeed. For, without the
check of the idea of impartiality, when our all too natural proclivity
to justify and rationalize our own actions is given free rein, we are
bound to be drawn into inter-societal conflicts of destruction and
eradication. The temptations to try to put an end, once and for all, to
the causes of human suffering ' to totalitarianism, barbarism,
oppression, injustice, jahiliyya,24 terrorism ' become too great to
resist. Trotting around the globe to smoke out the evil ones and
eradicate them can easily become an obsession, even with the noblest of

For these reasons the vocabulary of evil as absolutely-not-self cannot
be allowed to pose as a deeper, more vital and primordial ethical
language that can shine through the lacunae of the ethical vocabulary of
norms. Those who would justify violating inter-societal norms in the
name of combating evil, or in order to prepare the conditions for
developing and strengthening these norms, have precisely some such
relationship between the two vocabularies in mind. But the relationship
ought to be reversed, especially in the inter-societal context. That is,
where the conception of evil as not-self is being used, i.e. where the
attribute of evil is to be attached to the action or character of
another, such a move should be contingent upon the fulfillment of a
condition. The agent being judged must first have been found guilty by
the impartial application of norms, and the place of the judgment of
evil must be completely circumscribed by procedures that are tailored to
respond simply to the judgment of moral or legal guilt. One way to
conceive of this would be as analogous to the distinction between the
determination-of-guilt phase of a criminal trial, and the sentencing
phase, where the legitimate reliance on this vocabulary of evil can be
relegated to the latter phase.

As to the conception of evil as connected-to-self, I envisage two
constructive roles in the inter-societal context. The first involves
national discourses of historical self-reflection, and the second
involves redirecting discourses about past and present horrors that use
the absolutely-not-self vocabulary of evil in such a way as to reveal
connections to self. One of the most promising uses of the
self-connecting vocabulary of evil lies in its role in fostering debates
about the national past, and the horrors to be found in it. For example,
such a vocabulary of evil is useful in debates such as the
Historikerstreit in Germany or the debates surrounding slavery and its
relationship to the American founding in the US. In such contexts
certain actions and institutions in a national group's past are
identified as evil, but, because they form an integral part of a
society's history, it is relatively easy for participants in such
debates to make the case for the connection between those who are doing
the reflecting and the evil deeds or institutions. In the
Historikerstreit the Nazi past is raised as formative of who Germans
are, in order to understand it as a part of themselves that they reject
and wish to overcome, surely a meaning that explains the attractions of
the term Vergangenheitsbewältigung.25 Such debates, while they are
structured as the internal debates of a society, have far-reaching
consequences for inter-societal relations. For they go to the heart of
how members of national groups conceive of themselves and their place in
relation to other groups. When internal national discourses take this
shape, we can say that the vocabulary of evil enriches ethical
reflection and deepens it far beyond anything that the vocabulary of
norms can possibly achieve. For it helps mend ethnic, racial, and
national rifts, and helps foster the desire among groups to live under
common mutually respectful institutions and norms.

Another context in which this conception of evil can be valuable in
inter-societal relations is in redirecting and reframing debates that
use the vocabulary of evil in its absolutely-not-self conception. For
example, consider the debates surrounding Daniel Goldhagen's book
Hitler's Willing Executioners. In the US it would be easy for an
argument like Goldhagen's simply to deepen Americans' sense that the
Germans of the 1930s and 1940s are absolutely and quintessentially
distinct from themselves. However, the debate around the book can be
redirected so as to highlight the continuities between the anti-Semitism
that Goldhagen took to be endemic in Germany and the anti-Semitism
rampant in the US during the same time periods. Such a redirection of
the debate has nothing to do with equivalence in the assignment of moral
responsibility or blame. It simply highlights a 'but for the grace of
God' moment. In so doing it enriches both Americans'understanding of the
horrific events, and their ability to add to their collection of 'us at
our worst' scenarios, so that from what remains of who they are, they
can better construct 'us at our best' scenarios to guide them. Without
this redirection of the discourse, very real connections between
themselves and what they would self-righteously declare as the evil
attributes of others would be missed.

Debates concerning recent political radicalization in the Middle East
are another example. Often the ghastly images of charred American bodies
hanging from bridges, or of strewn Israeli body parts evoke the query,
'What is wrong with them?' It is not unfashionable for scholars to
answer this query by pointing to what they unabashedly refer to as
evil-inducing social and cultural 'ailments' of Arabs and Palestinians.
Such debates lend themselves to being redirected, to ask not what is
wrong with 'them', but instead to highlight the connections between such
horrors and ones to which the questioners are themselves connected. The
horrific images can, for example, be juxtaposed with the well-documented
history of lynching in the US with its rituals of flesh burning and
symbolic cannibalism.26 I am not suggesting that all talk about such
topics be censored and confined to this mode. Rather, I am arguing that
when public political debates start relying on the rhetoric of evil as
absolutely-not-self, it becomes incumbent upon thoughtful participants
in such debates to reframe that particular aspect of the debate and to
do so in a manner that utilizes the second conception of evil, in order
to avoid the dangers of invoking the conception of evil as not-self, and
to remind us that barbarism and human depravity, as the images from Abu
Ghraib attest, are not the sole property of 'evil' others. They also
characterize us and our cherub-faced sons and daughters, when we are at
our worst. Where in a particular context the vocabulary of evil is used
and the relationship between evil and self is left unexplored, we have
reason to be concerned and suspicious. We also have reason to intervene
discursively and to search for ways of discovering latent, deeply buried
connections between similar evils and ourselves. I conjecture that,
sadly, if such a search is conducted faithfully, it will hardly ever
fail to produce results.

In ethical debates about inter-societal relations the conception of evil
as con-nected-to-self can serve to buttress and further support the
vocabulary of norms and the indispensable function that norms themselves
serve. It has the potential for fostering deeper understanding between
groups, and helping heal historical wounds. This in turn can render
members of previously warring groups more willing to negotiate,
construct, and live under common mutually respectful institutions and
norms. For, in addition to all of the other challenges facing the
possibility of a just and stable inter-societal order, our contemporary
world also lacks a sufficient stock of solidarity in which to anchor
such an order. If it is to be stable, a just inter-societal order must
rely on the willingness and desire of all, including former enemies with
a bloody past, to live under common institutions. At the very least this
requires their willingness to renounce future revenge for past wrongs.
One way to help bring about the conditions under which such a
renunciation is more likely is to foster historical self-reflection
within societies, and to redirect public debates away from identifying
evil as absolutely-not-self and towards acknowledging evil as
connected-to-self by considering 'us at our worst' moments.


1	Michael Barnett, Eyewitness to a Genocide: the UN and Rwanda
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).

2	This is best illustrated by the structure of Kant's argument in
'On the Common Saying: "This May be True in Theory, but it does not
Apply in Practice"', in H. S. Reiss (ed.), Kant: Political Writings (New
York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 61'92.

3	Michael Walzer, 'Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands',
in Amelie Oksenberg Rorty (ed.), The Many Faces of Evil (New York:
Routledge, 2001), pp. 303'18.

4	In the liberal tradition of thought, the standard has been best
articulated by T. M. Scanlon in terms of what 'no one could reasonably
reject'. See his 'Contractualism and Utilitarianism' in Amartya Sen and
Bernard Williams (eds), Utilitarianism and Beyond (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1992), p. 111.

5	David Little, John Kelsay, and Abdulaziz A. Sachedina, 'Saudi
Arabia, Pakistan, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights', in
Human Rights and the Conflict of Cultures: Western and Islamic
Perspectives on Religious Liberty (Columbia: University of South
Carolina Press, 1988), p. 35.

6	See Farid Abdel-Nour, 'From Arm's Length to Intrusion: Rawls's
"Law of Peoples" and the Challenge of Stability', Journal of Politics,
61(2), May 1999, pp. 313'30; and Farid Abdel-Nour, 'Farewell to
Justification: Habermas, Human Rights, and Universalist Morality',
Philosophy and Social Criticism, 30(1), 2004, pp. 73'96.

7	G. W. F. Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History,
trans. Leo Rauch (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988), p. 38.

8	Ernest Renan, 'What Is a Nation?', trans. Martin Thom, in Homi
Bhabha (ed.), Nation and Narration (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 11.
Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, 'Why Are There Wars?', in Rorty, The
Many Faces of Evil, pp. 250'60.

9	John Milton, Paradise Lost,


10	Nathaniel Hawthorne, 'Dreams of Evil', in Rorty, The Many Faces
of Evil, p. 212.

11	Friedrich Nietzsche, 'First Essay "Good and Evil", "Good and
Bad" ', in On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York:
Vintage Books, 1967), pp. 24'56.

12	George Schwab, 'Enemy or Foe: A Conflict of Modern Politics',
Telos, 72, Summer, 1987, pp. 194'201 at p. 194.

13	Schwab, 'Enemy or Foe', p. 197.

14	Schwab, 'Enemy or Foe', p. 199.

15	Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality
of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1964, revised and enlarged edition), p.

16	Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, pp. 25'6.

17	Hannah Arendt, 'The Banality of Evil: Failing to Think', in
Rorty, The Many Faces of Evil, pp. 265'6.

18	Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, 'How to Harden your Heart: Six Easy Ways
to Become Corrupt', in Rorty, The Many Faces of Evil, p. 282.

19	Rorty, 'How to harden your heart', p. 284.

20	Alessandro Ferrara, 'The Evil That Men Do: A Meditation on
Radical Evil from a Post-metaphysical Point of View', in Maria Pia Lara
(ed.), Rethinking Evil: Contemporary Perspectives (Los Angeles:
University of California Press, 2001), pp. 174'6.

21	Ferrara, 'The Evil That Men Do', pp. 184'6. The distinction
between ordinary evil and radical evil is an important part of his
argument and the book's general theme. For our purposes it is not
particularly significant and distracts. Thus I have selected the quotes
in a way that avoids this distinction.

22	Ferrara, 'The Evil That Men Do', p. 188.

23	Trudy Govier, Forgiveness and Revenge (New York: Routledge,
2002), p. 126.

24	This term, which literally means ignorance in Arabic, and
usually refers to the condition of pre-Islamic Arabia, was reinterpreted
in the 1960s by Sayyed Qutb, the theoretical father of contemporary
radical Islamist political currents, to refer to the ills of modern

25	The term means literally to overcome the past, but has a
stronger connotation that almost rings of overpowering the past.

26	See Orlando Patterson's blood-curdling descriptions, especially
in the second section of his book Rituals of Blood: Consequences of
Slavery in Two American Centuries (New York: Basic Books, 1998), pp.

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