The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil

The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil

The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil

The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil


What distinguishes evils from ordinary wrongs? Is hatred a necessarily evil? Are some evils unforgivable? Are there evils we should tolerate? What can make evils hard to recognize? Are evils inevitable? How can we best respond to and live with evils? Claudia Card offers a secular theory of evil that responds to these questions and more. Evils, according to her theory, have two fundamental components. One component is reasonably foreseeable intolerable harm -- harm that makes a life indecent and impossible or that makes a death indecent. The other component is culpable wrongdoing. Atrocities, such as genocides, slavery, war rape, torture, and severe child abuse, are Card's paradigms because in them these key elements are writ large. Atrocities deserve more attention than secular philosophers have so far paid them. They are distinguished from ordinary wrongs not by the psychological states of evildoers but by the seriousness of the harm that is done. Evildoers need not be sadistic:they may simply be negligent or unscrupulous in pursuing their goals. Card's theory represents a compromise between classic utilitarian and stoic alternatives (including Kant's theory of radical evil). Utilitarians tend to reduce evils to their harms; Stoics tend to reduce evils to the wickedness of perpetrators: Card accepts neither reduction. She also responds to Nietzsche's challenges about the worth of the concept of evil, and she uses her theory to argue that evils are more important than merely unjust inequalities. She applies the theory in explorations of war rape and violence against intimates. She also takes up what Primo Levi called "the gray zone", where victims become complicit in perpetrating on others evils that threaten to engulf themselves. While most past accounts of evil have focused on perpetrators, Card begins instead from the position of the victims, but then considers more generally how to respond to -- and live with -- evils, as victims, as perpetrators, and as those who have become both.


Four decades of philosophical work in ethics have engaged me with varieties of evil. It began with an undergraduate honors thesis on punishment, which was followed by a Ph. D. dissertation on that topic, essays on mercy and retribution, and a grant to study the U. S. penitentiary system. Besides “Crime and Punishment” courses, I also teach or have taught Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and the philosophy of religion, all with a central focus on evil.

The mid-1970s brought an encounter with the radical feminist essays of Marilyn Frye, which worked a revolution in my approaches to everything. I affiliated with Women's Studies and developed three courses in feminist philosophy. My research interests expanded to take in rape, atrocities of domestic violence and child abuse, histories of slavery, lynching, and segregation, and, thanks to pioneering work by Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly, histories of witch burnings, foot binding, sati, and the imposed female genital surgeries of clitoridectomy and infibulation.

For a decade I taught a multicultural Women's Studies course on lesbian culture from Sappho to the present. (One could do that in the late '70s and early '80s before research in the field mushroomed.) I began work on horizontal violence in my Lesbian Choices (1995) and on the impact of social institutions and intimate relationships on moral character development and was struck, even more than in my work on mercy, by the pervasiveness of what Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel taught us to call “moral luck. ” My book The Unnatural Lottery: Character and Moral Luck (1996) initiated a struggle to come to terms with the idea of moral responsibility under oppression. That struggle continues in this book, especially in chapters 3, 4, 9, and 10.

When a colleague who taught environmental ethics left my department in the late 1980s, I affiliated with the university's Institute for Environmental Studies. For a decade I taught a large cross-listed course that included attention to environmental racism, pesticides, factory farms, global warming, and . . .

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