Evil in Contemporary Political Theory

Evil in Contemporary Political Theory

Evil in Contemporary Political Theory

Evil in Contemporary Political Theory


Politicians and the press exploit the rhetorical strength of the word "evil" in phrases such as 'evil regimes' or 'Axis of Evil'. Yet, until recently, contemporary political theory has been wary of its religious connotations or the status of the moral judgement it conveys, especially when approaching morality from a relativist perspective. This book explores the actual and possible roles of evil in modern-day international politics.

Many political theorists think that some things may not simply be "different," but are objectively wrong. Approaching this issue in different ways, these theorists arguethere are important questions to be asked about the extent of a reasonable pluralism. There is surprising agreement in modern cultures on the substantive evils that confront human communities: genocide, torture, and slavery. It is here, where our tolerance is stretched to the breaking point, that we can apply the concept of evil.

This volume demonstrates the usefulness of the concept of evil in outlining criteria for the "limits of toleration," describing the development of humanitarian international law, theorizing postconflict outcomes, the notion of forgiveness, and making sense of political spin.


The concept of ‘evil’ has a long history in the western tradition, extending from early theological debate, through tortured discussion of the relationship between moral and religious issues, to a contemporary context in which moral and political theory have domains of discourse in their own right. the religious roots of the idea of ‘evil’, however, have often made it difficult to accommodate in predominantly secular cultures, especially in multicultural contexts where deeply held beliefs may not be widely shared. Indeed, there has been a tendency in recent decades, especially among political theorists, to set the notion aside as outdated or inappropriate. Yet, at an intuitive level, the idea that some things are especially wrong, beyond toleration, still has significant currency. ‘Evil’ is undoubtedly a complex and controversial notion, but it continues to capture something that resonates across cultures in the modern world. We can grant that ‘evil’ is a dangerous and loaded term, readily open to abuse. the simple fact that it remains in currency in so many areas of discourse demands philosophical attention. While there is a small (but growing) philosophical literature on evil, political theory has not revisited the idea systematically.

It is clear that ‘evil’ as a concept is taken seriously in ordinary political debate. Politicians and the press recognise the power of describing something as evil. This is clear in accounts of ‘evil regimes’, an ‘axis of evil’, of evil people such as Josef Fritzl and other abusers of children. While different people or regimes may not always agree about the precise character of evil, there is little doubt in their minds that something is evil, that the concept labels something important. the label is reserved for institutions, people or behaviours that are not simply wrong, but appear to be especially horrible, or so bad that they warrant another moral category altogether.

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