Tuesday, August 19, 2008

There Are No Evil People

But surely Hitler or Stalin or Osama Bin Ladin are evil if anyone is evil. Not according to Susan Neiman. As she sees it (and you can see it here), we shouldn't talk about evil people, but about evil actions. This helps us to understand the phenomenon of evil in the world more clearly, she believes. Thinking this way allows us to see that you can do quite evil things without intending them, or even do evil with good intentions. (This, of course, goes to the kind of discussion we've had here before here at Engage about why it may be morally inadequate to say that some action shouldn't be labled as racist unless the agent intended it to be racist).

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At 6:39 PM , Anonymous Galen said...

I don't have a problem with the idea of evil people so long as the concept is used appropriately. But I think too often the evil of, say, Hitler is used to explain his actions and motivations instead of the other way around. It is when evil is treated as some basic moral property, incapable of analysis, that I think it does more harm than good. If we limit the things that can be evil to actions, we remove this worry. It would make no sense to think of using the evil of an action to explain other features of the action.

At 10:58 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Galen: I agree. But what is it that people talk about when they say someone is evil if not his actions? I suppose some want to talk about some kind of spiritual substance or corruption. But outside of a religious context, I'm not sure what "evil" is supposed to pick out if it is not a term to describe certain proscribed actions.


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