Friday, January 20, 2023

Review of A Philosophy of Evil by Lars Svendsen

This review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Genre = Philosophy
Book Club Event = Book List (06/10/2023)
Intriguing Connections = 1) The Persecuted and The Persecutors

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“Extreme actions undertaken by “monsters” are among the clearest ideas we have of evil.  Perhaps there really are human “monsters” in the world – and by that I mean people whose actions are so extreme that we simply can’t identify ourselves with them – but there are far too few of these to explain the abundance of human evil in general.  In the end, it is we – we normal, more or less decent, respectable people – who are responsible for most of the damage.  We’re the only explanation for all the evil in the world.  From this point of view, it is “normal” to be evil.  Of course, we aren’t eager to describe ourselves as such.  If anyone is evil, it’s always “them.”” – Lars Svendsen, Foreword, Page 11

“For most of us, the idea of evil isn’t something we associate with our everyday reality, with our day-to-day experiences and routines, but we do nonetheless come into contact with it almost constantly by means of the mass media: we are always watching and reading reports of genocide, famine, unmotivated violence, and traffic accidents, living in a paradoxical situation where evil is both absent and omnipresent – absent in our concrete experience, but everywhere in the reality we perceive in the media” – Lars Svendsen, Introduction, Page 18

“We can also look at moral evil as a possible determination of human freedom.  A world without free agents might still contain evil, but it would only be natural evil, not moral.  A world without freedom might contain an infinite amount of suffering, in fact, but only someone who could have acted otherwise can be blamed for not having acted otherwise.  Only a free agent can be guilty of moral evil” – Lars Svendsen, Chapter 2: The Anthropology Of Evil, Page 84


Is This An Overview?

Most damage done through evil does not come from terrible deeds of acknowledged monsters who cannot be identified with.  Most damage comes from normal and decent people.  Although evil is not associated with normal routines of everyday life, people still have constant contact with evil through mass media reporting violence and other tragic situations.  This is a paradoxical situation, as evil is absent and omnipresent.  Absent in experience, but perceived everywhere.  Evil is difficult to recognize without a centralized identity.  Evil is ubiquitous, which is fostered by the inability and difficulty to discuss evil.  People are a complex mixture of good and evil, and need to find ways to discuss evil to find ways to fight it. 

Moral evil exists because individuals are free to make choices.  To act differently in a given situation.  Individuals are responsible for the choices that they make.  Four types of evil are described which are demonic evil, instrumental evil, idealistic evil, and stupid evil.  Demonic evil is an act of doing evil because it is evil.  Instrumental evil is using acknowledged evil to accomplish another goal.  Using evil means to accomplish a good outcome.  Idealistic evil is when a person does evil in the belief that its good.  Those who committee idealistic evil considered themselves to be the representatives of the good.  Stupid evil is committed by someone who acts without consideration for whether their acts are good or evil.  Stupid evil is not a reference to intelligence, but a reference to evil coming about through thoughtlessness, an absence of reflection.  Stupid evil is banal, and the focus of this book.  


An Introduction to Evil: 

Evil has become aestheticized, as imaginary evil is seen as romantic while real evil is banal.  Imaginary good is banal, while real good marvelous.  The aestheticization of evil, has caused people miss the horror associated with evil.  With an aesthetic understanding of evil, there is no actual victim, acts without consequence. 

Although the focus of this book is the ordinary evil, could not escape the contrast with the extraordinary evil.  Evil is salient in the acts committed by acknowledged monsters, whom most people cannot identify with.  But that extreme evil is limited, and cannot explain the abundance of evil.  Most damage done through evil comes from normal and decent people.  Evil is the normal, but without the eagerness to identify it as such.  Evil is usually someone else, a them.

Society has developed a gap between experiencing evil and the ability to understand it.  Outside extreme cases with clear perpetrators, there is little understanding of where evil actually resides.  Satan was a scapegoat of evil, but with the death of God, along with Satan, people have lost the ability to talk about evil as there is no representation of evil.  Some claim to want to resurrect the dualism of evil, as the opposite of good.  Others want evil renewed rather than restored.

Few deny the existence of evil, but many deny the existence of an evil person.  There is a reluctance to call even the worse individuals evil.  Evil lacks meaning if the worst individuals cannot be called evil.  An evil person can be considered those who chose to intentionally do harm.  Alternatively, evil can from acts claimed to be evil. 

People want an unconditional concept of evil, but there are a lot of conditions that make life less good.  There is no ultimate evil, only various evils.  Good and evil are relative concepts, as they contrast each other.  Evil is a characteristic of things, events, or actions.  Evil is a human social construct describing actions, and refers to suffering.  People therefore seek to reconcile with the existence of evil, and attempt to find meaning within evil.  The author argues that evil should not be justified, nor is reconciliation with evil appropriate.  Evil should be fought, not explained, nor justified.  That there is no meaning in the tragedies within human history.

Choices made by an individual are more than a sum of causes, for the individuals can act freely.  Free will allows for choices outside of the chain of cause and effect.  Moral evil exists only because there is free will.  Free will refers to the ability to act differently in a given situation.  Situations in which the individual could have acted differently but did not. 

As people mature, they become culturally acclimated, they become a moral being.  A complex mixture of good and evil.  Some have more good or evil, but each is a combination.  A morally evil agent is free, without consideration of the human impact.  No need for intention, for suffering can come from thoughtless action.  A thoughtless person is responsible for the evil acts because the person should have thought before the act.  Blame comes to those who could have acted otherwise.  Those guilty of moral evil are free agents.

Evil usually refers to others, a transgression done.  The incomprehensibility of evil is both seductive and repulsive.  Evil becomes practical and clear if it is considered to be anything that opposes living a meaningful and worthy life.  Understanding the evil done by normal people, can contribute to an understanding of humanity. 


The Impact of Evil:

Harm to the victim tends to be greater than the gain to the perpetrator.  The same act that has a profound negative effect on the victim, but an insignificant positive effect for the perpetrator.  Conflict tends to escalate because of this gap.  Even if harm to both sides is equal, each will feel to have suffered more than the actual damage done. 

Those who consider themselves to be violent, think that others are violent, with situations requiring violent responses.  Knowing ourselfs, does not necessarily mean we know others. 

There are those who like to mistreat others, without any benefits.  They enjoy it.  The desire for violence is always present, but does require an excuse to utilize.  An excuse to legitimate the violent action, and blame the action on the other.  Victims tend to act aggressively, which contributes to a tragic outcome. 


Fighting Evil:

Contemplation leads to a better life.  The world is hard to change, but the individual can change themselves.  Discussion with others should precede application of practical wisdom.  Moral and political questions should be held in a public forum.

Citizens within democracies are meant to protest publicly when given the opportunity.  Silence gives consent.  Participating in defining an event’s moral status is important.  Participants can increase awareness of something morally unacceptable.  Evil is not something anyone should remain neutral to.  Sometimes, that might require physical force to prevent.

Legitimacy of an order comes from it being followed.  Refusing to follow orders, also refuses to recognize them as legitimate.  Refusal is a powerful weapon. 


Origins and Alternatives Understandings of Evil:

Traditions of the origin of evil claim that evil is done because of: 1) seduced by malevolent, supernatural power, 2) people are naturally predisposed to be evil, 3) environmental influence, 4) people choose evil with free will. 

God’s death is a reference to how humanity has given up believing in humanities divinity.  Rather than humans becoming divine with the death of God, people now have radical contingence.  They are able to shape the history, without a guaranteed right direction.  Without God, evil has become a human problem.  Science was thought to govern progress, but that belief was lost at its own demonstrated destructive potential.

Within Marxism, God was replaced with history and humanity.  It even contains a utopian concept.  Ideas that suspend morality for a higher purpose, which in practice has led to many dead.  Historic progress overshadowed any moral considerations for Stalin’s committees.  Their moral consideration was that of historic progress.  Even believers fell victim to egregious injustices. 

Biology cannot define a moral concept of evil, because moral evil requires a choice.  Biology defines good, that which is useful for reproduction, and evil as useless.  Good and evil are not located in the genes.

Sometimes evil is contrasted to what people would do in a natural state.  But a hypothetical primitive state does not explain who people are. 


Demonic Evil:

Demonic evil is self-sufficient evil.  The existence of evil for its own sake.  Appears in more testimonies of victims than perpetrators.  Victims tend to think that their perpetrator is purely sadistic, but there is no related emotional relevance for the perpetrator.  Those who appear to be monsters committing evil acts, tend to be normal people without any disposition towards sadism. 

There are race cases of murders that contain autotelic violence.  Violence that is self-justifying and self-sufficient, which is demonic.  Demonic evil is disinterested, for it has no purpose beyond itself.  This is the problem with the demonic evil view, for most of the time, every desire has a component of good even if just for the agent, even though the desire itself is evil.  Evil can come about in trying to attain the individual’s subjective good goals, at other people’s expense.  Evil then becomes purpose driven, a variant of instrumental evil.  People committing evil to attain a form of good, which is instrumental evil.  Demonic evil needs to be supplemented with instrumental evil.


Instrumental Evil:

Morals laws subordinate sensual appetites to social interest.  Moral laws founded upon reason.  Pursuing happiness is not an immoral activity, unless it intentionally transgresses on moral laws.  For Kant, the root of evil is accepting moral law, but simultaneously ignoring the precepts.  Moral evil chooses to subordinate moral law to sensuous inclinations. 

There are those who use evil means to obtain good outcomes.  Choosing evil for another objective, for self-love.  The agent knows the different between subjective and objective good and evil, but chooses subjective good. 

For Kant, respect for moral law comes through its transgression.  Knowing the negative effect the actions have on even one’s own thoughts, provides the reason to follow moral laws.  The guilt felt for transgression leads to respect for moral law.  Knowing that the individual is free comes from the transgressions as well. 

Those who do not understand moral laws, cannot be held accountable to them.  Kant’s instrumental evil applies only to those who knew that they were committing a wrong.  Ignorance prevents people from accepting moral laws, but that can also mean that the individual is responsible for being informed of moral laws.  The problem is that knowledge of the moral laws, comes about after the violation. 

Instrumental evil needs to be supplemented with idealistic evil and stupid evil.  For it is with idealistic evil that an agent believes they are doing good.  And stupid evil is when the agent does not consider moral consequences of one’s actions.

Instrumental and idealistic evil agents both desires good.  The difference is that while idealistic evil agents desire objectively good, the instrumental evil agents desire subjectively good.  Instrumental evil agents, knows that evil is being done but chooses to commit the evil for a greater purpose.  Idealist does not know that evil is being done. 


Idealistic Evil:

Ideas about evil, have created evil.  Those who attempt to overcome evil, have brought more evil into the world.  Those who hate evil, do evil.  When their destructiveness rebounds back on themselves, their world view is strengthened.  Theories of evil simplify the complexity of reality to a single arbitrary opposition, with no alternative possible other than good or evil. 

Not all evil is imaginary, but much of evil has been introduced by attacking something mistaken to be evil itself. Evil love brings into the world evil.  Love of self, country, and other objects of love.  Sometimes, what is perceive to be good, is actually evil.

The attacker perceived the attacker to be the actual victim, while blaming the victim as the aggressor.  Rare when those who do evil, recognize their actions as evil.  Evil is not part of a perpetrator’s self-image.  Evil is perceived by the victim and witness.  As the perpetrator judges the victim to be evil, they consider themselves to have good motives.

In the human attempt to find meaning, action is founded upon ideas.  The ideas of good and evil are correlated with us and them.  With evil always others, and never oneself.  There is nothing inherently wrong with the dichotomy of us and them.  Even arbitrary delineation are needed for identity formation.  The problem is when the pair is interpreted asymmetrically, which is a basis for discrimination. 

Many identities are created through imagined communities.  Even though most members of different groups would not have contact with the other group members, there is still a feeling of group identity.  Even an arbitrarily chosen trait is enough to create the difference between us and them.  Trivial traits that lead to systematic discrimination.

It has often been sufficient to attack others when they are perceived to be evil.  But, others being evil does not necessitate that attackers to be good.  Both sides are possibly evil.  Not every means of fighting evil is good. 

Humans tend to group themselves for the advantages of cooperation, but too tightly knit groups can become problematic.  Individuals tend to substitute the group’s values for their own.  Surrendering individually is equivalent to surrendering the capacity of thought. 


Stupid Evil:

Evil can be unmasked and prevented.  Evil creates the conditions for its own destruction, or at least provokes negative emotions.  There is no defense against folly, making folly a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil.  Folly cannot be reasoned with.  Contradictions are disbelieved, or become a source for criticism or exception. 

Stupidity in this book is a reference to thoughtlessness, not a lack of intelligence.  Stupidity is a lack of judgment.   

Terrible acts can be carried out by people without sadistic motives, but for want of resolving a practical problem.  Actions that take place in a moral vacuum.  Without sadism, elements that can cause people to accept evil is by presentation, distancing, separation of labor, escalation, and socialization.  Realization of evil comes the questions about how someone could have been thoughtless, why evil was not resisted, or recognizing what one has become.  Depersonalization can dissolve politics and morals which contributes to apathy.  Apathy threatens personal responsibility and critical thought.  

Radical in this book means root, as a reference to depth.  People who speak in clichés, are superficial, and lack depth.  Totalitarian indoctrination does not create absolute conviction, but rather destroys the ability to form convictions, to destroy the ability to think with depth.  The civil servant language is a depersonalized language.  A language full of clichés to prevent the individual from thinking for themselves.  Prevents reflection.  Thinking for oneself, becomes a form of betrayal. 

Lenin and Stalin wanted to use violence against enemies of the proletariat.  The regime was meant to serve the masses, but the masses were not what the regime wanted them to be.  Violence was turned against the workers and peasants the regime was meant to serve.  Purging those they deemed an enemy.  Purges that were also ethnically and racially motivated.  The opposition to be purged was ambiguous, and arbitrarily chosen.  With time, more and more groups fit the regime’s qualifications.  The ambiguity of the enemy, did not raise questions about the existence of an enemy.  As the criteria for an enemy became less precise, and more applicable to more people, the criteria fit not only enemies but also friends and relatives.  Within totalitarian society, what is good or evil is defined by state, not the individual. 

People do not actually know what they will do in a situation, until the realization of the situation.  People are fallible, but they can hope to do what is right, and find the strength to oppose evil. 



The focus of the book is on evil.  Specifically ordinary evil, that everyone is capable of.  With the objective to fight evil, not explain it.  The author also claims that there is no meaning to be found in the history of human tragedies.  These claims create various contradictions.  Without an attempt to explain evil, without trying to find meaning in the tragedies, there can be no reflection on what evil is and what to do about evil.  The author wants reflection to prevent evil, but also undermines reflection.  Reflection of evil would mean trying to understand evil to find alternative ways of being and ways to fight evil.  Knowing how evil operates and why, leads to ways to fight and undermine evil.  Within the book, the author does seek out examples of evil throughout history, and reflects on what was found.

What is missing from the book is a systematic explanation on what is needed to fight evil without turning into evil.  To know what is evil appears to need discussion, but different groups can come up with different views about certain actions as evil or good.  As the different groups can obtain different views about what is evil or good, the different groups can have a conflict and see each other as evil and themselves as good.  This type of conflict has features of instrumental evil, and of idealistic evil.  But within this conflict, they will be doing good, because they have reflected on what that means and chose the conflict. 

A way to fight evil is by speaking up against evil.  But there are social consequences of speaking up.  The author does reference a case when people willingly did evil to others, without harming those who did not want to participate.  But the lack of apparent consequences could only have been known after the event, for the author to obtain the statistics.  The people who were committing the acts or did not want to commit the acts, would not have known the consequences in advance.  Appropriate dissent is not as easy as the author tries to make dissent out to be. 

The author wanted to focus on ordinary people committing evil, but the examples of transgressions are mainly large or with extreme outcomes.  As anyone can commit evil, what is missing is the size of transgressions. 

There are costs to reflecting about morality of actions.  Ordinary people commit evil, and are meant to use those temporary acts to reconsider ways to act.  Even as the acts are transient, socially acknowledging and trying to become better is difficult, because society can emphasize the evil done rather than the willingness to change.  This social feature escalates the cost of acknowledging the transient evil, because it can be forever claimed as a reference of an evil individual.  The cost can prevent people from acknowledging the evil, and continue to do evil. 

There is more to reflection.  The author does acknowledge that reflection does not make people good people.  They can still choose to commit evil, or mistaken their views to be good.  But there is another problem with reflection.  Reflection takes energy, while delegating decision reduces the energy strain.  Many decisions are delegated to enable the individuals to think about other things.  What this means is that not thinking about something, is not necessarily the problem of evil.  Also, it would be near impossible for an individual to consider the moral consequences of every action, for there would be no energy left to actually make a decision to act.  This leads to another missing part of the book, missing an understanding of appropriate reflection methods.  

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What is evil?
•What is demonic evil?
•What is instrumental evil?
•What is idealistic evil?
•What is stupid evil?
•Why is evil not discussed?
•What is aesthetic evil?
•What kind of person is capable of evil?
•Does evil need a scapegoat?
•How does a person become moral?
•Why does moral evil exist?
•What is the difference between the impact of an event on the victim and the perpetrator? 
•How does an individual’s perspective on violence influence the individual’s actions?
•How to fight evil?
•What are the different origins and thought about evil historically?
•What does God’s death have to do with human action?
•What are the conclusions of Milgram’s experiments?  What information is missing from the experiments?

Book Details
Translator:            Kerri S. Pierce
Publisher:             Universitetsforlaget
Edition ISBN:      9781564785718
Pages to read:       226
Publication:          2001
1st Edition:           2011
Format:                 Paperback

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall          5