Chapter 1

Ari Hirvonen and Janne Porttikivi

So wrote Voltaire in his ‘Poem on the Lisbon Disaster’ after the first modern catastrophe, the Lisbon earthquake, which took place on 1 November 1755. The earthquake sufficed, says Theodor Adorno, to cure Voltaire from the theodicy of Leibniz,2 which Leibniz had introduced in his Essais de théodicée (1710) to justify the omnipotent, beneficent and infinite Creator in the face of all the evils in the world. For Leibniz, God had in his infinite wisdom necessarily chosen this world we live in, which is the best of all possible worlds.3 Voltaire continued his criticism of Leibnitz’s – and also Alexander Pope’s – optimism and dogma of theodicy in his satirical novel Candide. It takes quite a belief to take theodicy seriously after having confronted the greatest philosopher in the world, the teacher of ‘metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology’, Dr Pangloss, a parody (unfair) of Leibniz, who goes around Europe repeating again and again after continual moral, physical and natural evils, ‘Individual misfortunes result in the general good, with the consequence that the more individual misfortune there is, the more everything is for the best.’4

Rousseau, who defended Leibniz, also turned his gaze to human beings. Instead of blaming divinity, one should realize that all their misery, crimes and evil proceed from themselves.5 Also young Kant heard the news from Lisbon and he published three articles on the subject in 1756 in a local paper, in which he rejected all religious, metaphysical, mystical and astrological interpretations of earthquakes. Earthquakes had nothing to do with divine punishments since we stand with our feet on the cause. ‘Man must learn to accommodate himself to nature, but he wishes that he could accommodate it to him.’6

Later Kant confronted the problem of moral evil and declared that for its own sake morality does not need religion at all. The cause of moral evil lies neither in the original sin, in turning away from God, in privatio boni nor in our desires and needs: ‘The history of nature begins thus from good, since it is the creation of God, the history of freedom begins from evil, since it is accomplishment of human being.’7 For Kant, we are neither angels nor demons. We do have a predisposition (Anlage) to good, but it does not mean that we would already actually be good but that we become good or evil by freely choosing good maxims, which incorporate the moral law, or evil maxims, which give primacy to the pathological, non-moral incentives. Then again, we have a propensity (Hang) to evil, that is not to follow the moral law. Even if this propensity is innate in our nature, it is based not on our will but our power of choice (Willkür). The propensity of evil is brought upon us by ourselves – hence, we are accountable for it. Human being is evil means for Kant that we are conscious of the moral law and yet have incorporated into our maxims the occasional deviation from it. This is what Kant calls radical evil in Religion within Boundaries of mere Reasonx.

Kant does not give formal proof that there is such a propensity but only refers to the multitude of woeful examples that the experience of human acts parades before our eyes, and after Kant this parade has continued. Anyhow, the basic argument for Kant was that we are radically free and hence accountable and responsible for our good and evil maxims and acts. We just can neither exonerate ourselves by blaming the original sin, passions or social expectations, nor turn to a religious fantasy of a perfect world. Evil is a product of humanity and not merely a lack or absence of something that should be there or something that will vanish if we would see things from the perspective of infinity and eternity. All in all, ‘[t]he human being must make or have made himself into whatever he is or should become in a moral sense, good or evil’.8 As Joan Copjec says, ‘Kant sees evil as uniquely the product of a free humanity, and it is this that is new in his thought’.9

One more name should be mentioned: Friedrich Schelling, who strictly affirmed the reality of evil. It is something that is present in the world. If Hegel reduced evil to the subordinated moment in the self-meditation of Idea qua supreme good, as Slavoj Žižek says, then for Schelling ‘evil remains a permanent possibility which can never be fully sublated [aufgehoben] in and by the Good’.10 Thus, there is a universal necessity of evil, since in a dialectical manner good and evil are the same and one who does not have within him either the stuff or the energy of evil, is equally incapable of good. However, evil remains the particular choice of human being – the human freedom means freedom to do good and evil – and in nature there is not evil as such: therefore, evil is spirit, a positive disharmony. The ground and existence, gravity and light, are unified in God but this is reversed in human beings so that the ground becomes the source of evil in human beings.11 As Richard J. Bernstein confirms, Schelling recognized the unconscious, unruly and dark forces that shape human life and anticipated Nietzsche and Freud.12

The first starting point of this book is the inevitable relationship between human freedom and evil. The thinking and speaking of evil have to turn definitely away from theodicy and more generally from all theological explanations of evil. Good and evil are not related to any Supreme Being, transcendent universal principle or infinity. We should not deny the existence of evil by explaining it as something that will in the long run turn out to be part of good. Neither can we see evil as part of the divine plan nor the perfection of the universe, nor, as in a Manichean way, as a transcendent force or principle which is opposing the good. The cosmos is neither ultimately morally good order or a battleground of good and evil forces; these views are not merely philosophically and ethically extremely problematic but politically dangerous, since theological theories of evil are so easily and readily turned into acceptance of suffering and destruction or into demonization of others and justification of war, oppression, and terrorism.

One should not leave evil only for theologians and politicians or reduce it to ultimately dull and boring spectacles of Hollywood movies. One should address evil as ‘something’ that is in this world, something that is in our being-in-the-world and in our being-together. It is human, an all too human, phenomenon. One does not have to pester the devil to understand evil, Rüdiger Safranski claims, since evil ‘belongs to the drama of human freedom. It is the price of freedom.’13

Since the aim of the book is to understand evil and how it is conceived in modern thought, the basis for the analysis of evil is the deconstruction of theological concepts of evil already on the way in Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, and Schelling. Especially Kant’s concept of radical evil has in one way or another affected most of the post-Kantian theoretical thinking of evil. For us, it is Kant who truly opens the thinking of modern moral evil. However, some of his contemporaries thought that old Kant had betrayed the principles of the Enlightenment philosophy he had so enthusiastically spoken for, and returned to the firm and safe ground of religious tradition. If we now follow Kant in the opening of this book, do we also, if we take this criticism seriously, turn, after all, back to religion and meta-physico-theological thinking? There is, however, as Joan Copjec has shown, another way to see Kant’s turn away from being the new apostle of reason and progress: Kant had ‘found in these Enlightenment notions a new source of evil’ and had begun to suspect his former optimism.14 Perhaps Kant saw how the dogma of unlimited progress could become a modern secular theodicy, being not only a new kind of justification of evil but also a source of evil in itself.

The theological and metaphysical stories of good and evil should be interrupted, their truths deconstructed, but so we have also to do with our Kantian heritage if we want to fully grasp the phenomenon of evil in its whole complexity, and this is ultimately also the aim of the essays on law and evil, which are collected here.

In 1945, Hannah Arendt wrote, ‘The problem of evil will be the fundamental question of post-war intellectual life in Europe’.15 One had to articulate and elaborate questions ‘What happened? Why did it happen? How could it have happened?’16 And for Adorno, Hitler imposed a ‘new categorical imperative on humankind’, which demands to arrange ‘thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself’.17

Holocaust was the most extreme form of modern evil and it definitely was not a natural catastrophe, like the Lisbon earthquake, but a human one. The last and this century have continued to be a stage where the human propensity to evil has actualized its possibilities. Neither legal and political institutions nor ethics and philosophy have been able to prevent outbursts of evil. We witness daily evil in different guises and forms: war, terrorism, repression, oppression, racism, xenophobia, imperialism, criminality, violence, torture, human trafficking, exploitation, poverty, pollution, etc. In addition to this moral, political and legal evil, there is evil in the form of diseases and natural catastrophes, which are not completely beyond human responsibility.

Regardless of this, Arendt’s demand to think the question of evil has not become true. The conceptual discourse, Richard J. Bernstein writes, ‘for dealing with evil has been sparse and inadequate’.18 Bernstein also cites Andrew Delbanco for whom a gulf has opened up between the visibility of evil and the intellectual resources available for coping with it: ‘never have our responses been so weak’.19 Or as Emmanuel Levinas argues, the Western philosophy has not sufficiently insured itself against the essential possibility of elemental evil.20 Then again, in recent years there has been discussion on the problem of evil,21 but still there is a need for theoretical analysis of the concept, idea and phenomena of evil.

The reluctance is related to our starting point. As Ottfried Höffe remarks, for many, evil appears as a metaphysical or theological concept, as the malum metaphysicum, as the sum total of the world’s imperfections. It is often considered as a subject of philosophy of religion, which cannot easily be accommodated by secular ethics.22 Peter Dews says that there is an intellectual and cultural dilemma: on the one hand, we feel impelled to resort to the notion of evil in describing horrible events, where the fundamental ethical conditions of human existence are violated; on the other hand, in the predominantly secularized West the majority of people do not share the religious assumptions that gave the notion of its place in our thinking.23

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