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Politics and the Problem of Evil

February 19, 2013

by J. Andrew Zalucky


If there is one thing most people in the West can agree on, it’s that Fascism and National Socialism represent “Evil” ideas, both in their historical legacies and modern incarnations. But where does this evil come from? Are these ideas evil because they are in principle, awful and destructive ideas? Or are they only evil because someone acted on them?

In a way, you could come up with a lot of rhetorical exercises that would make this seem logical. A good friend and debating partner of mine often says “Hitler wasn’t necessarily evil, he was just dead wrong”. Imagine if Hitler remained in Austria and continued with his lackluster art exploits and just kept his rapid anti-semitic nationalism to himself. With any luck, he could have turned into just another crazy uncle, or perhaps just a reactionary cultural snob (or a hipster!). One could keep at this for hours. Was Ted Bundy evil because of what he did or what he was? Would he still have been evil had he not raped and killed anyone? What if he was hit by a bus before he took his first victim? Even the most righteous among us have terrible thoughts, probably everyday. No sensible person, at least no one who’s ever read a page of George Orwell, would ever propose a system that prosecutes us for every wicked thought that crosses our minds (unless you feel particularly wedded to the 10th Commandment).

While this thought experiment may be fun in a debate or classroom setting, historical and practical realities make things a lot different. Anyone can be wrong about something, but what really matters is what you’re wrong about. It’s one thing to be “wrong” about a mathematical equation, or about the author of a certain book. However, it’s quite another thing take your wrong notions about individual sovereignty, rights, and liberties and engage in consistent and systematic acts of destruction and brutality. Besides, even if a psychopath lacks the brain functions and empathetic impulses to realize it’s wrong to gun down a room full of children, for our practical purposes it is essential that we may be able to call this act by its right name: evil.

“But Drew, evil is just a social construct! Who are you so judgmental?!”

Well, like most human beings, I’d prefer to…you know, NOT die in a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing. No one has the ultimate answer to the question of evil in human life, but for the sake of our survival and sanity, the struggle to find the answer is an unavoidable one.

And though it would be simple minded of us to ignore historical circumstances, we must remember that circumstances are not everything. Examination of the situation surrounding events like the Holocaust and Srebrenica, while important, should not prevent us from condemning those responsible.

In his studies on the genocide perpetrated by Ratko Mladic in the early 1990’s, Foreign Policy‘s Michael Dobbs examines how evil can even come from a place of seemingly rational self-interest:

Having studied Mladic’s career and actions in the Bosnia war, and observed him in court in The Hague, I do not believe that he can be simply dismissed as a crazy psychopath. His decisions reflect his understanding of his own interests and the interests of his people. From his point of view, they were rational decisions based on a hard-headed, if twisted, calculation of the advantages and disadvantages of various possible courses of action. In this sense, the evil is explicable.

However, in another post, he goes on to point out that:

“Mladic’s decision to execute some 7,000 Muslim men and boys captured by Serbian forces following the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995 is merely one example of an evil act for which there can be no justificationTo explain evil is not to justify it.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2013 9:40 am

    Succinctly written and thought provoking, for a second I had a neutral view of Hitler while I pondered your questions, that is what good writing does, gives us a shift in perspective even if just for a moment.


  1. Fascism: What it is, and How NOT to Fight it | For the Sake of Argument

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