|Dalkey Archive, 312 pp., $14.95, April 6
Wallflowers frontman Jakob Dylan gently opens his solo debut, Seeing Things
, with a reality-check: "It's hard to admit, but it's easy to tell, that evil is alive and well."
Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen
agrees in his 2001 book A Philosophy of Evil
, urging people, especially Westerners, to wake up to this fact and do something about it through personal, social and political means.
"Evil is a possibility found in all of us, because we are all free, moral beings," writes Svendsen in Kerri A. Pierce's newly translated English edition
. He argues that while "evil" is generally pictured in demons and Nazis, we must understand that most forms are much more tangible than that, eventually pointing toward the fact that "evil" is not an abstract principle
that disappeared with religious mythology, but a real moral problem in all human beings and societies. "Evil people are not just 'others,' but also ourselves."
This work of philosophy begins by tearing down popular religious conceptions of why evil exists. Svendsen argues that explaining evil only serves to defend it
, whereas things like genocide and rape must not be rationalized and therefore tolerated they must be fought. Using the Holocaust as his primary example, but exploring many other real-life historical events, as well, he shows how normal people are capable of extreme evil
, suggesting that there is no single source for evil but rather a more complex range of causes. Some do evil to achieve a goal, such as using slave labor to make a profit. Others do evil because they mistakenly believe it is good, exemplified in the Crusades or any other ideological war. The majority of us, however, do evil simply for lack of forethought.
Here he says that much evil is the result of stupid and careless actions, while instrumental and ideological evil are allowed to exist because no one thinks to do anything about it which is itself an evil.
On that last point, Svendsen continually drives home the point that when we see evil, we must call it what it is, and that we have a responsibility to work for a better world
, while carefully guarding ourselves against creating more evil in the process. Of course, this is easier said than done, but he makes a compelling argument for battling injustice and defending human rights, on both the local and international level.
The discussion of where evil comes from is thoughtful and usually convincing (though not always). The train of thought is clear and easy to understand, especially for philosophy, and the language is smooth and readable, especially for a translation
. While it is not an end-all study of the subject, A Philosophy of Evil
is a valuable contribution, and it serves as a needed reminder and call-to-action for the 21st century.