Sunday, December 15, 2002

Peter Berkowitz, in today's Washington Post Book World, reviews two new books examining the nature of good & evil: Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought & Bernard Williams's Truth and Truthfulness. Berkowitz starts by pointing out the continued relevance of this old problem to a world agitated by ethico-political debate over Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, terrorism & the appropriate response to its horrors. Neiman & Williams, of course, like all good philosophers, are more interested in questions than in answers, but the conclusion they separately come to — "anticlimactic and abstract", says Berkowitz — is that our best defence against the possibility of evil is human reason, our ongoing & highly imperfect attempt to understand ourselves & the world we make around us, & to use this knowledge to prevent suffering as far as we are able.

My own fragmentary idea, picked up not from metaphysicians but from novelists, is that evil is the failure of the moral imagination, our failure to try to step outside ourselves & understand the world as it occurs to other people, to imaginatively grapple with their happiness & their suffering, to grasp their humanness. Perhaps I'm labouring under a hopeless naïvety, but I don't see how a person could deliberately inflict harm, inflict suffering, inflict evil, upon another person, unless he failed to grasp the essential fact that this other was as capable of suffering as he. Hence the pernicious strategy of dehumanising rivals & enemies through labels, stereotypes, lies. It's not that hard, it seems, to blow people up or hack them to bits if you manage to think of them not as human beings but as Jews or Arabs or infidel or sinners or terrorists.

The great sin, I think, is exceptionalism: believing oneself of more value — more human — than others. Yet our evolutionary history as an animal species, struggling for survival, has created us with this very instinct. Hence the revolutionary significance of Christ's dictum, "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them"; & of Kant's categorical imperative, "act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law". They ask us to be something more than the animals of our physical nature. They ask us to do something extraordinary, something which almost no other animal species seems capable of doing: imagine what the world feels like to someone else.

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