NOTHING IS GAINED and much is lost if we describe he terrorists as evil," a friend of mine argued recently. I disagree. Our difference can be traced back to a division in moral philosophy. My friend is a moral expressivist. He views moral judgments as expressions of feelings, desires and wants. We add nothing to the description of the situation, he says, when we name our enemies as evil. Instead, we should state what we feel about them and their act, and what we intend to do in response.
I, on the other hand, count myself among the moral realists. We emphasize the reality of value properties such as moral goodness or moral evil. If we drop words like "good" and "evil" from our vocabulary, say the realists, we seriously misperceive the character of some acts and may abandon our response to both the act and the play of power.
Our difference in moral philosophy goes hand in hand with our disagreement about human nature. Humans are good and rational, my friend argues, and we insult humanity if we call some of its members evil. He prefers to explain their evil acts by pernicious influences--a set of nasty genes, abusive parents, unjust structures, manipulative leaders. I agree to a point. But there is no greater insult to a human being than to reduce her to a set of influences. Our condemnation of her deed notwithstanding, we respect an evildoer by calling her evil because we are treating her as a responsible being.
My friend and I also disagree about what we mean when we call someone evil and about how we should treat "evildoers." He says that calling Osama bin Laden "evil" conjures up an image of evil incarnate. "Think of the phrase `we have seen the face of evil,' he says. "It suggests that bin Laden is nothing but wickedness."
"That may be what people mean when they call a particularly vile person `evil,' but that is not what the Christian tradition means," I respond. True, the essence of evil is pure negation of the good. But it is a mistake to equate an evil person with evil, even in the ease of the devil and his demonic hosts. There are no beings who are pure evil. Evil is privation; it lives off the good. One can be evil only if one is partly good. If one were to do the impossible and become pure evil, one would simply cease to be. To say that bin Laden is evil is precisely not to say that he is evil incarnate. He remains God's good creature who pursues undeniable goods even as he does evil.
We underestimate an evildoer if we understand him as "a shape-shifting demon, a wild-card moral anarchist beyond our comprehension," as Stanley Fish recently put it. Evildoers are dangerous to more than just themselves precisely because in their evil schemes they are pursuing important goods, for themselves and for their communities. …