There is probably no easier way to beckon a smirk to the lips of a liberal intellectual than to mention President Bush's invocation of the notion of "evil." Such simple-mindedness! What better proof of a "cowboy" presidency than this crass resort to the language of good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats? Doesn't everybody know that there are shades and nuances and subtleties to be considered, in which moral absolutism is of no help?
Apparently everybody does know that, since at election times the same liberal intellectual will, after much agonizing, usually cast his vote for whichever shabby nominee the Democratic Party throws up. And he will do so, in his own words, because this is "the lesser evil." So, it seems that we cannot quite do without the word, even though it's worth noticing that some people only employ it in an ironic or relativist sense, as a quality that must be negotiated with, accommodated, or assimilated.
Though the word is often heard on the lips of preachers and moralists, it does also figure in the reflections of modern moral philosophers. Faced with the evidence of genocidal politics in 20th-century Europe, Hannah Arendt, for example, posed the existence of something she termed "radical evil" and suggested that intellectuals were failing to allow for its existence as a self-determining force. Her phrase "the banality of evil" also enjoys wide currency, serving to help us understand the ways in which "ordinary men" can be mobilized or conscripted to do exceptionally ghastly things. If she had said "radical sinning" or "the banality of sin" she might have seemed sermonizing or naive, but then President Bush did not refer to an "axis of sin," did he?
It may not be of much help, in propaganda terms, to describe an enemy as "evil." Time spent in understanding and studying a foe is always time well spent, and absolutist categories may easily blunt this rigorous undertaking. But how far can certain analyses be taken without running up against a recurrence of Arendt's dilemma?
Everybody knows that morality is indissoluble from the idea of conscience and that something innate in us will condemn murder and theft without having to have the lesson pedantically inculcated. Finding a full wallet on the back seat of a cab and deciding to hang onto it, most people would have to subject themselves to at least some rationalization and justification, even if they were sure that nobody had detected them. I myself can't decide if this inherent conscience is conferred upon us by evolutionary biology—in other words, whether it selects well for socialization and survival and thus comes to us as something possessing evident utility. That thought might be merely as comforting a reflection as a belief in altruism. However, I do know for sure that a certain number of people manage to be born, or perhaps raised, without this constraint. When confronted with the unblinking, conscienceless person we now say that he is a "psychopath," incapable of conceiving an interest other than his own and perhaps genuinely indifferent to the well-being of others.
This diagnosis is certainly an advance on the idea of demonic possession or original sin. But not all psychopaths are the same. Some, rather than being simply indifferent to the well-being of others, have an urgent need to make others feel agony and humiliation. Still others will press this need to the point where it endangers their own self-interest—just as a pathological liar is one who utters apparently motiveless falsehoods even when they can do him no possible good. Thus, we have to postulate the existence of human behavior that is simultaneously sadistic and self-destructive. We would not have much difficulty in describing the consequences of such behavior as evil. "It was an evil day when …" "The evil outcome of this conduct was ..." Why, then, is there any problem about ascribing these qualities to the perpetrator?
For example, many countries maintain secret police forces and inflict torture on those who disagree. And some countries inflict torture or murder at random, since the pedagogic effect on the population is even greater if there is no known way of avoiding the terror. Caprice, also, lends an element of relish to what might otherwise be the boring and routine task of repression. However, most governments will have the grace (or the face) to deny that they do this. And relatively few states will take photographs or videos of the gang-rape and torture of a young woman in a cellar and then deposit this evidence on the family's doorstep. This eagerness to go the extra mile, as is manifested in Saddam Hussein's regime, probably requires an extra degree of condemnation. And if we are willing to say, as we are, that the devil is in the details, then it may not be an exaggeration to detect a tincture of evil in the excess. We could have a stab at making a clinical definition and define evil as the surplus value of the psychopathic—an irrational delight in flouting every customary norm of civilization.
Like everything else, including moral relativism, this would be subjective. Probably no journalist in the current discourse has had more fun denouncing Bush as a reactionary simpleton than Robert Fisk of the London Independent. His dispatches have an almost Delphic stature among those who decry American "double standards." Yet I still have my copy of the article he wrote from Kuwait City soon after the expulsion of Saddam's forces. He described as best he could the contents of certain cellars and improvised lock-ups and the randomness of the carnage and destruction and waste (remember that Saddam blew up the Kuwaiti oilfields when he had already surrendered control of them), but there was an X-factor in the scene that he could smell or taste rather than summarize. "Something evil," he wrote, "has happened here." I think I agree with him that we do indeed need a word for it, and that this is the best negative superlative that we possess.