Understanding Evil: An Interdisciplinary Approach

Understanding Evil: An Interdisciplinary Approach

Understanding Evil: An Interdisciplinary Approach

Understanding Evil: An Interdisciplinary Approach


Scholars of literature, philosophy, law, and theology made presentations at a March 2002 conference in Prague that, like this volume of proceedings, was a project of the Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness research project. The 13 essays cover grappling with evil; justice, responsibility, and war; and blame, murder, and retributivism. They are not indexed. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)


Understanding Evil: An Interdisciplinary Approach consists of thirteen essays presented at the third annual Conference on Evil and Wickedness, held in March 2002 in Prague. Written across the disciplines of law, literature, philosophy, and theology, the essays represent wideranging approaches to and understandings of “evil” and “wickedness.”

The collection consists of three sections. Part I, “Grappling with Evil,” offers four chapters, as does Part ii, “Justice, Responsibility, and War.” Part iii, “Blame, Murder, and Retributivism,” rounds out the collection with five chapters.

“Grappling with Evil” begins with Neil Forsyth's essay, “Evil and Literature: Grandeur and Nothingness.” This first chapter analyses constructions of evil at work in Shakespeare's plays. Paying special attention to Macbeth, Forsyth argues that “Evil is nothing—or at least it leads to nothingness. Everything disappears into language, and the language is without meaning.” For Forsyth there is grandeur in this kind of nothingness: “Macbeth sees with great clarity and courage the nothingness that his life has become.” This combination of grandeur and nothingness, Shakespeare's formula here for tragic heroism, anticipates Romanticism's fascination with overreachers and madmen. It is a fascination, as Forsyth himself makes clear, in which twentieth-century and even contemporary culture still participate.

Chapter 2, “Refraining Evil in Evolutionary and Game Theoretic Terms” by Theodore Seto, shifts our attention from literature to moral theory. Offering a theory of normative obligation based on evolutionary and game theory, Seto argues that “evil” may be defined “both concretely and usefully.” in terms of game theory, Seto observes that ““individuals who appropriately cooperate, punish, and forgive tend to survive and reproduce more successfully than those who do not.” Cooperation, he continues, is also a key mandate of evolution. Thus, evil may be defined as “a serious intentional maladaptive breach of the principle of reciprocity other than an individual failure to punish.”

Chapter 3, “The Catheter of Bilious Hatred” by Robert Fisher, also seeks to define evil. Fisher begins by noting his “botherment”; his immediate concern is with the brutal deaths of two children, reported by the media in the United Kingdom in 2001. the descriptions of these deaths, which noted the sustained, systematic, and intricate forms of violence that the children endured, lead Fisher to a four-part definition of “evil” that recognizes its aesthetic quality. For Fisher, “'evil' is …peculiar to us as a species; …intelligently artistic; …intensely creative, and…personally satisfying.” Given these components, “evil,” Fisher argues, can only be answered by a “goodness” that consists of . . .

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