Evil and Evildoers. (Faith Matters)

By Volf, Miroslav | The Christian Century, November 14, 2001 | Go to article overview

Evil and Evildoers. (Faith Matters)


Volf, Miroslav, The Christian Century


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Evil and Evildoers. (Faith Matters)
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.